Oma

       I stared into the murky gloom outside my kitchen window while sipping on a cup of coffee. The milky fog partially obscured the dark shapes of trees and buildings across the street, but the weather report said it was going to clear up later in the morning – another typical San Francisco day.  Headlights from passing cars going up and down a steep Telegraph Hill street cast luminous beams into the haze.  A lone, hunched figure shuffled along the sidewalk in front of my place, stopped for a moment as if lost, and then continued walking on into the mist.   

       I usually wasn’t up so early, but woke up from a rather pleasant and poignant dream and couldn’t get back to sleep. The dream was about a time in my youth when I took train trips from a Munich suburb to the city with my mother and sister.  During these trips, I always sat in a window seat so I could wave goodbye to my grandmother as the train slowly pulled away from the station; except in this dream, she was the one in the train and was waving goodbye to me from an open window.

       I rustled up an omelet, listened to the news on the radio, and ate at the dining room table.  Soon I had a notion to take the day off work from the newspaper, especially since it was a Friday and I could wrap the day around the weekend.  A minute later, I decided to do it.  I’d grown to dislike working there anyway and didn’t care what my bosses thought.  

       After breakfast, I topped off my cup, flopped down on the easy chair, and started to plan the day.  First, I’d walk up Columbus Ave to City Light Books, maybe buy a book or two there, have lunch in Chinatown, pick up the Bay Meadows Racing Form, and handicap the Saturday card in a Grant Street Coffeehouse.  

       In the meantime, I started reading a book but set it down after a few pages.  I couldn’t help thinking about my grandmother, and now felt compelled to go down to the apartment’s storage area and open a box of childhood photos that I was meaning to put into an album.  I set aside the photos from my last time in Germany and gazed at them, one by one.  There was the picture of me climbing an apple tree in my grandparent’s yard, and another one where I was sitting at the dinner table next to my uncles and grandfather.  I chuckled at the photo of me in the driver’s seat of my uncle’s Mercedes sedan with my hands on the steering wheel, pretending as if I was driving and with such a wild and goofy grin.  And most precious of all; sitting in my grandmother’s lap as she read me a story from a big book.  

       Now, more memories burst forth about my grandmother – or Oma, as my sister, Aline, and I lovingly called her – and the last summer I spent in Germany when I was ten years old.  The first thing I recalled were the times we all walked together along the dirt roads of the rustic Obermenzing neighborhood in the mornings, passing by old houses with spacious yards sheltered by shrubs and trees - some with chickens, roosters, goats, or pigs - until we arrived at the train station.

***

       “Hey look, Oma!”  I said, pointing up the tracks.  “Here comes the train!”   

       “Ja Ja,” she said.  “Ich sehe es.”  

       “Do you see it too, Mom?”  I asked. 

       “Oh yes, there it is,” she answered.

       “What’s the big deal?”  Aline said.  “It’s just the same old train.”

       “I wish you were going with us this time,” I said to Oma.

       Oma shook her head because she didn’t understand, so mother translated my words to her.  Afterwards, she nodded to me with a smile.  

       I stared at the dark shape of the locomotive as it rounded a curve in the far distance, and couldn’t take my eyes off the single glimmering headlight.  Soon, I began to feel lightheaded as the locomotive got closer, and only snapped out of it when the platform shook a little as the train shuddered to a stop.   

       Today we were going to the Zoo; that was going to be fun.  I jumped onto the train and sat down in one of the window seats facing the platform so I could see Oma.  We were off on another adventure!  Even though we’d taken the same ride many times before, I always liked looking at the scenery as we passed the farms and countryside, the roads and autobahn, the villages and small towns, and then the larger towns, the outskirts of Munchen, and finally the bustling railway station.  There was always something new and different to see each time.  

       Aline and I waved to Oma from the window, and as soon as the train started to move out, I lifted up the window and waved to her again.  She waved back with that same warm smile, and with eyes that looked like they were crying.  I looked back and watched her standing on the platform for as long as I could, until the train rounded a bend and she disappeared from view.    

***

       I watched Oma chop vegetables while I cracked and ate nuts on the kitchen table.  As usual, she wore the same black floral dress, covered in the front with an apron, with buckled shoes and thick leg stockings.  It seemed like she was always in the kitchen preparing food for the midday and evening meals; the kitchen was her kingdom.  I noted the concentration on her face as she cut the carrots and potatoes and other vegetables with such precision.    

       “Oma, can I help?”   

       She looked back to me with a surprised smile.  I knew she understood English a little but could barely speak it at all.

       “Helfen?  Sie mochten uns helfen?  Selbstverständlich, kleine Bertie.  Selbstverständlich.”  

       She handed me some already-peeled potatoes and carrots and then gave me a large knife, while saying something in German to me, only a little of which I understood.  I tried to cut the first potato with the same care that she did.

       That evening, we all sat in the dining room for the evening meal.  As usual, my grandfather – or Opa, as Aline and I called him – sat at the head of the table.  The main course was the oxtail soup full of the vegetables that I helped cut.  

       “Mmm sehr gut, Mutti,” Rolf remarked as he ate.

       “Ja. Das Fleisch ist zart,” Wolfgang said.

       “Mmm, you’re right, uncle,” Bert said.  “The meat almost melts in my mouth.”    

       “Kleine Bertie half mir heute, Sie wissen,” Oma said

       “Wirklich? Wie?”  Opa asked            

        I remembered some German from the time I was there two summers before and was beginning to understand the language better each day.  “I cut some vegetables, that’s all,” I answered. 

       “Good for you,” mother said.

       “Probably the ugly mushy ones,” Aline retorted.

       “Oh shut up.  I did better than you could.” 

       “You two stop fighting or else no dessert for either of you,” mother said.

       I listened to my uncles and Opa chat during the rest of the meal.  Today, my uncles casually discussed their jobs in a bank.  Other days, they talked much more animatedly about how the Bayern Munchen soccer team was doing.  As they talked, I noticed my uncles and Opa soak up the last of their oxtail soup with pieces of bread, and so I did the same  

        “Aussehen,” Wolfgang said, as he watched me soak up the soup with my bread.  “Bert ist essen wie ein Mensch, nicht ein Junge.”  

       “Ja, Ich bin ein Mensch!”  I answered, holding both arms up to show my muscles, “nicht ein Junge!”   

       “Und er ist auch ein komisch!”  Opa said, with a laugh.

       “And smart,” Rolf said, who liked to speak English more whenever he could.  “Your German is good,” he said to me.

       “Nicht so gut,” I answered.

       “Do you give them lessons?”  Rolf asked mother.

       “No, he just listens well,” she said.

       “Ja, er ist sehr klug,” Opa said to Oma, “wie ihre Bruder.”    

       “Hast du ein Bruder?”  I asked Oma. 

       “Ja, aber ich habe noch vier Bruder.”   

       “Wow, you have four brothers,” I said.  “Hast du Schwesters?”  

       “Nein, ich habe keine Schwestern,” Oma answered.

       Oh, no sisters,” I replied.  “Wo wohnst deine Bruders?”  

       “Drei in Stuttgart and eins in Ulm.”  

       “We’re going to visit her brothers in Stuttgart soon, you know,” mother said.

       “When?”

       “Wann haben Sie sagen, wir werden sie besuchen?” mother asked Oma.

       “Am nächsten Wochenende,” Oma answered.

       “Next weekend?  Are we going by car or train?”

       “By car,” Rolf answered.

       “Yay!  On the autobahn!” 


       I was so glad to ride in Rolf’s fast Mercedes with Wolfgang on the way to Stuttgart.  The rest of the family rode in Opa’s Opel sedan.  We left in the morning and both cars rode together until we got on the autobahn, and then Rolf sped off and left the Opel behind.  The plan was that Rolf would pick up Gerhard, one of Oma’s brothers, in Ulm and then drive to Stuttgart later in the afternoon.

       Rolf had taken me on short trips on the autobahn before, so I knew he liked to drive fast.  I sat in the back seat and watched with glee as Rolf passed almost every car on the autobahn.  The only time he ducked into the right lane was when those funny-looking Porsches roared past us.  

       Around noon, we arrived in Ulm and picked up Gerhard, a distinguished-looking man with a well-trimmed white beard who walked with a cane and wore a long black coat and a round black hat.  On the way to Stuttgart, Gerhard spoke in rapid German to Rolf and Wolfgang, but said nothing to me after a brief introduction.  

       We arrived in Stuttgart in the early afternoon, but stayed in the residential areas.  Rolf maneuvered his way into a woodsy neighborhood with large and stately homes and eventually turned into a long a driveway that led to one of those homes.  After he parked the car, I got out and gazed at the house in awe, which looked as big as a castle. 

       A butler greeted us at the door and led us through the house.  All the rooms we passed had rich woodwork and high, beamed ceilings, and there were many old paintings of landscapes and portraits hanging on the walls.  After we passed the busy kitchen and a room full of many books, we emerged into a spacious backyard where groups of adults and children were socializing.

       Most of the men were gathered in the partially shaded patio holding large mugs of beer.  Rolf and Wolfgang quickly headed toward them, leaving me by myself.  The yard was interspersed with fruit trees and bordered by pruned shrubs.  Aline played on a swing with two other girls.  A group of women sat on a table with mother and Oma in the shade under a large tree.  On the other side of the yard, three boys about my age kicked a soccer ball around.  I was about to join them until I saw Oma walking, with a slight limp, towards me.

        “Ah es gibt sie Bertie,” she said.  “Sie können sich meine Brüder jetzt - deine grosse Onkle.”   

       She led me to a festive group of men.  One of the men broke off his conversation when he saw Oma and me approaching.   

       “Auch Schwester,” the man said to Oma.  “Wer ist dieser hübsche junge Mann mit ihnen?  

       “Das ist Albert, Doris' Sohn,” Oma answered, “aber wir nennen ihn Bert.”  

       “Ach ja,” the man said, with a smile to me.  “So you are my nephew - no, my grand- nephew.”

       “Bert, das ist Eckhard, einer von meinen Brüdern,” Oma said.

       “Gutentag, Eckhard,” I said. 

       “Gutentag, Bert.  Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”  

       “Nur ein bischen.”   

       “That is good enough,” Eckhard said, with a hearty laugh.

       Just then, a few other men gathered around Eckhard. 

       “These are my other brothers,” Eckhard said, pointing to two men behind him,   “Friedrich and Werner.” 

       Both of the men nodded and gazed at me with fixed grins. 

       “How do like Germany?”  Friedrich asked. 

       “I like Germany very much,” I answered.  “I also like this house very much too.  It’s so big”

       “Yes, it’s been in our family many years,” Eckhard said.

       As we talked, I noticed one of the girls on the swing race across the yard and stand next to the men on the patio.  She had blonde hair with long braids and stared intently at me as I spoke to my granduncles. 

       “Would you like to see more of the house?”  Werner asked.

       “Jawohl, grossonkel.”

       Friedrich then interjected something in German to Eckhard and Werner that I didn’t understand.  Friedrich punctuated what he said with a wink to both of them.

       Eckhard put his hand on my shoulder and led me into the house.  The granduncles and others followed, including Oma.  After we passed a large, open stairway that led to the upper rooms, they stopped in front of the dining hall.  

       “This is where we will all eat soon,” Eckhard said.  “I hope you are hungry.”

       “Ya”, Ich bin sehr hungrig.”

       Next, we went into the library, which had a large globe in the middle of the room.  Most of the books were behind beveled glass doors, and a few of them looked very old, judging by their well-worn covers.  Some weaponry hung on another wall opposite the books: swords, bows, and long, sharp instruments I’d never seen before.  

       “Come now, Bert,” Eckhard said.  “There is one more painting I want you to see.”

       When we emerged from the library, I saw a few more people milling around the main room, including the girl with braids.  Eckhard led us to this room, which had a huge fireplace that looked ten times bigger than the one we had in Seattle.  We stopped in an alcove along the main room and in front of a large portrait of a man with dark features, a stern expression, and long sideburns that connected to his mustache.   

       “This is Reinhold,” Eckhart said, pointing up to the portrait.  ”He’s the one who had this house built over three hundred years ago.”

       “Some say this painting has magical powers,” Friedrich whispered into my ear. 

       “What do you mean?”  

       “If you stare into his eyes and walk back and forth, you might see them following you,”   

       “Just to some people,” Werner said.  “Try walking back and forth to see.”

       I stared up at the portrait and into Reinhold’s eyes.  First, I walked a little to the right and then to the left; Reinhold’s eyes followed me both times.  I walked a little faster across the painting, but Reinhold’s eyes followed me again, as if he was alive in the painting.  

       I stopped in front of the painting while staring up at Reinhold and began to feel a tingly sensation on the back of my neck.  Everything else around the painting seemed to be a blur.  I was barely aware of the subdued laughter of others in the room, which sounded distant and like an echo.  

       The spell was broken when I felt an arm on my shoulder.  I looked up and saw it was Oma.

       “Es ist in Ordnung, Bert.  Alles ist jetzt gut,” she said.

       “You’re part of the family now,” Eckhart said to me, with a smile.  

       The rest of the group followed Eckhart into the Dining Hall. 

       “It’s just a trick they play on kids,” I heard a girls voice say behind me say.  I turned and saw it was the girl with braids.  “They did it to me last year. My name is Gretchen.”

       “Hi. My name is Bert.”

       “I hear you’re from the United States,” she said

       “Yeah. We’re just visiting our relatives in Munchen. Are you from the U.S. too?”

       “No. My family lives in Heidelberg.”

       “It’s just that you speak English so well.’ 

       “My brother, Dieter, and I go to a school here that teaches it.  Come, everyone is going to the dining hall.  We can sit together and talk some more.” 

       The grownups all sat on the main table, while I sat in the middle of the smaller table next to Gretchen and three other boys.  Aline sat with four other girls on the other side of the table.   

       “Dieter, this is Bert, from the United States,” she said to a boy across from them.  “He’s visiting our relatives in Munchen.

       “Hi, Bert,” Dieter said.

       “I saw you playing soccer when I came here,” I said.

       “Soccer?”  Dieter asked.  “Oh, we call it fussball here.”

       “Football?  We have another sport called football in the U.S.”

       “Was sagts er?” a boy next to Dieter asked.

       Dieter muttered something in German to the boy, who responded with a laugh.

       “Do you play soccer, Bert?”  Dieter asked.

       “I play with some boys in Munchen.”

       “Good.  Next time you come here you can join us.”

       I spent the rest of the meal talking mostly to Gretchen while the others spoke amongst themselves in German.  As we all feasted on roast chicken, potato pancakes with gravy and a cabbage salad, we exchanged many little stories about what life was like in each other’s countries.  I liked Gretchen.  Even though she was a girl, she wasn’t too girlish.  


       The next morning, I sat on the kitchen table with mother and Aline eating sausages and eggs and fresh bread, thinking about the fun I had after the dinner with the other kids when we all went down to play in the large cellar of the house.  To get there, we went down a long, narrow flight of stairs that ended in a large room that stored many racks of wine and barrels of beer against the wall.  We also explored the dimly lit passageways that branched out from the main room, and later devised a little game of hide-and-seek.  Gretchen and I hid together behind a trunk near the end of a long passageway and whispered to each other about what was in one of those locked doors behind us: ghosts, skeletons, monsters, and other scary things.  Gretchen clutched my arm tightly as we whispered in the semi-darkness, and then I felt a peck on my cheek – a kiss.  

       I stared at her with a wide-eyed grin in the semi-darkness and kissed her back on the cheek.  Afterwards, we both tried to suppress a laugh.  Right after that, one of Dieter’s friends heard us and discovered our hiding place.      

       “What are you thinking about, Bert?” mother asked.  “You’re so quiet this morning.”

       “Oh, just all the fun I had here last night, especially in the basement.”

       “You know, Bert,” mother said, “Werner told me after the dinner that you remind him of one of his brothers, in the way you look, and even in the way you speak and act.”

       “Which brother?”

       “One that is not alive anymore.  His name was Herman.  I remember a little about him, but not too much.”  

       “So Oma had another brother?  What happened to him?”

       “He died during the War.”

       “Was he a soldier?”

       “No.  He worked on a newspaper.  Sometimes he wrote things that certain people didn’t like so —”    

       She let the words hang, then went back to eating her breakfast.  I noticed that she had the same troubled expression and tone of voice as when she talked about the war at other times. 

        “Do you think we can come here again before we leave?”  I asked her after a long silence.

       “We’ll see.”

       Both of us knew that was unlikely because it was already the middle of August and we had to fly back to the States in less than three weeks.   

       After breakfast, we all said goodbye to Eckhart and his brothers and headed outside toward our cars for the drive back to Munchen.  I looked back to the house before I got back in the car and held my gaze on the second-floor balcony where I stood watching the sunrise over the rolling, woodsy hills surrounding the neighborhood.  I wished we could’ve stayed in the house another day or two because I felt so good just being inside it.  It was similar to a feeling I had in the Munchen house, but even more so.  I stood there for some time and couldn’t take my eyes off of the house because I felt that if I did, something important would be lost to me forever.

       “Let’s go, Bert,” Rolf said, from inside the Mercedes.  “It’s a long drive back.” 

       Reluctantly, I got in the car and said little during the drive home, torn by confusing emotions I didn’t understand.  It seemed to have something to do with what Eckhart said about being part of his family.  Maybe that’s why I wanted to stay so much; we were leaving too soon!

***

       I tried to get to sleep but my mind was on other things, mostly the fact that we were going back to the States in a few days.  In a way, I looked forward to the exciting plane trip, but the strongest feelings I had were ones of disappointment and sadness because of all the new friends I was going to leave behind.  Gretchen was the first girl that I really liked, and I was also going to miss Dieter and his friends too.  Another was Rovie, the boy next door, who I played with the most.  We explored the trails in the nearby woods, and played soccer together with the other neighborhood boys.    

       In fact, I was going to miss everything about Germany: the countryside and farms, the old and stately building in the city, the different kinds of cars, riding on the trains, and just the way all the people talked and acted.  Germany seemed like a place that I just felt more comfortable and at home in - so much more than in Seattle.  Of course, I was going to miss my uncles and Opa and Oma most of all.

       I tossed and turned but still couldn’t get to sleep so I finally crept downstairs to see if anyone was still up.  Wolfgang was reading a book by the fireplace and Oma sat in the other side of the room knitting something that looked like scarf.

       “Bertie,” she said.  “Was ist los?  Kannst du nicht schlafen?”  

       “Nein Oma,” 

       “Hier kommen dann,” she said, patting the chair, “Ich lese Ihnen jetzt ein Buch.”  

       I went to a nearby shelf and pulled out a familiar book: a large hardbound collection of The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales.  It was my favorite book and she had read stories to me from it several times before. 

       “Welche soll ich Ihnen vorlesen am Abend?” she asked.

       “Ich weiß es nicht, Oma.”  A new story.

       I sat down on the chair next to her and settled my head on her shoulder, soft as a pillow, after she opened the book.  The pungent, musty aroma of her dress and the odor of her body seemed to transform my imagination even deeper into the book as she turned the pages.  I’d seen and read many of the stories and their corresponding sketches before: The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel, The Enchanted Stag, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Clever Elf, Rumpelstiltskin, and others.  Finally, she came upon a new story that I guessed was titled: The Young Traveller. 

       “This one,” I said, pointing to the page.

        “Ah, Der Junge Riese.”  

       I could only understand a few words as she read to me in German, but it almost didn’t matter.  I gazed upon the sketches on each page and simply imagined what those words could be and what they meant.  In a way, that was almost better than reading it in English.  Soon, she finished the story and paged through a few more stories until she came upon one that had another good sketch.  I pointed to it.

       “Dieser?” she asked.

       “Ja Oma, das ist gut.”  

       As she read Der Verlorene Sohn, I felt myself starting to nod off.  I tried to stay awake because it felt so good being in her comforting presence and in the fantasy world of the book; however, near the end of the story I couldn’t fight it off anymore and drifted off to sleep.

***

       I sat in his easy chair for some time thinking about this, and the other memories of my last time Germany.  I walked toward my bookshelves, picked out a version of The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales that I bought many years before, and browsed though it until I came upon the last story that Oma read to me: The Lost Son.  

       I set the book down and chuckled to myself with a new realization.  So maybe that’s where it began; Oma reading this book to me.

       When I returned to school that year, I started going to the local library a lot more.  The first books I read were the ones from Robert Louis Stevenson, and then Jules Verne.  In high school, I liked the stories from Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Victor Hugo and many others.  In college, I developed an interest in creative writing and graduated with degrees in English Lit and Journalism.  


       The next Monday, I was back at work on the newspaper, banging on the typewriter as fast as I could.  The piece I was rushing through was an extraction from the police blotter that came in on the wire over an hour late.  

       “Hey Bert!”  I heard Gus shout from the other side of the office

       “Pick up line four.  It’s your mother from Seattle.”

       “Hello, mom?”

       “Oh Bert,” she said, in a distraught voice.  “I’m sorry to call you at work, but it just couldn’t wait, and sometimes you don’t answer your home phone.”

       “Is everything alright?”

       “No.  I just got a call from your Uncle Rolf in Germany.  It’s my mother – your Oma,” she said between sobs.  “She passed away.” 

       “Oh, no, I’m so sorry.”

       “He tried to call earlier but a storm disrupted the phone service there, so I just found out about it today.  It’s just that there’s no one around here in the family.  I feel so alone.  

       “Did you call Aline?”

       “Yes, she’s driving up from Portland today.  That will help.”

       “I’ll see if I can take a few days off to drive up there.”    

       “That’s very thoughtful of you but there won’t be enough time.  I have to catch a flight to Germany Wednesday for the funeral later this week.  Oh, this is so unexpected.  I just got a letter from her earlier this month,” she said, breaking into sobs again.  “Everything seemed alright with her.”

       “Gosh, mother, I wish I could join you.  You know, I was just thinking about her too the other day.  In fact —”   I was going to tell her about the dream when I felt a strange emotion begin to stir within me.  “When did it happen?”

       “Just last week.”

       I was about to ask which day, but then it hit me; I knew exactly which day it was.  


About the Author: A.R. Bender is a somewhat peripatetic writer of German heritage now living in Tacoma, Washington, USA. He's completed two short story collections, a few of which have been published individually, multiple flash fiction pieces, and a smattering of poetry. He's also seeking representation for his completed historical novel. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking off the grid and coaching youth soccer.

Ace & Cyborg

I think he’s not going to work because his sugar is low. I think he’s not going to work because his sugar is low because his pump is giving him too much insulin. I think he’s not going to work because his sugar is low because his pump is giving him too much insulin because he ate too many carbs. I think he’s not going to work not because he’s depressed.

--

Once, my friend asked you if you carried a beeper. A lighthearted, but unknowingly malicious comment directed at the brown case attached to your belt. Always off to the side, always in that luscious space right before where the hip bone protrudes. You tuck in your shirt, a relic leftover from the cornfields in Indiana, barefoot days after Sunday-morning church. I wish you wouldn’t. I wish you wouldn’t not because of the pocket-sized machine that dangles, not because of the wire tubing that connects the machine to your stomach or ass, not because of the insulin I hear pumping through the tube at odd times during the night before you wake up from low blood sugar and eat a few fistfuls of candy in the backlight of our pantry – you, slumped over; you, tired from the lack of sleep every night; you, exhausted in your physical body, the body that is always trying, but never quite can. I wish you wouldn’t tuck in your shirt because it makes you look like middle-management from the mid-90s.

The pump whirrs again. This time the tubing rests between us on the couch as we sit on opposite ends, both of us clinging to the oversized arms. You aren’t guarding it from my cat like you should be. She’s on the coffee table and her eyes haven’t moved as she plans when to pounce. Her ears twitch and lay back against her head, disrupting her concentration. Her tail flicks. You don’t notice any of this because, as I stare at my cat, you stare at me. And when she does finally pounce, you laugh and say, “She’s trying to kill me!”

I’m string out by all the needles under the sink in the bathroom. Used and unused, air bubbles are flicked out while the orange cap rests between your lips and fill your pump. Remember that time we kept a spilled bag of used needles in our car’s trunk for months? Grocery shopping without you was never, really, without you. I had the needles to remind me to cut back on the pasta, rice, potatoes. Now that the trunk is clean, I make you get groceries with me, but not because I need the reminder anymore. It’s to make sure you get some tiny bit of exercise after sitting inside all day.

I know you know this, but someone else needs to say it.

I hear you from the bedroom, the lazy Sunday mornings when I try to stay in bed too late and you try to match my sleeping patterns but can’t. I hear the plastic tearing, the flicking of the syringe. I hear the sharp inhale, the click that happens when you reopen an injection site that was trying to heal and I’ve always wondered what it’s like to be constantly attached to something. Maybe that that’s why you’ve never had commitment issues. I wonder what it’s like to have your body fail you over and over, like potential lovers do.

You always have residue of medical tape left on your abdomen, remnants of the most recent site of intrusion. Sometimes, if I wake up first and the blankets are flung just-so, I’ll stare at the dark bits of glue. “Does it hurt? Is it annoying?” I asked when we first met. You replied, “Not as annoying as having to inject myself with insulin three to five times a day.” The lesser of two evils, a settling and acceptance.

You’re cheating and you know it. I know you see the look I give you when you order a sandwich or pizza over salad. My skin wrinkles, concerned when you tell the pump how many carbs you’ve eaten for a single meal. You like to keep that secret from me.

I never know what to do to at security checkpoints in airports. Do I, can I stand next to you while you try to tell the TSA officer the body scanner will go off because you have a pump at the same time you’re trying to tell them you have needles in your carry-on? Do I, can I stand next to you when the new guy has never dealt with this before and has to bring over a second person? Do I, can I take your items from the conveyer belt for you as you stress about holding up the line. I don’t. I sit down on the bench and put my shoes back on while they swab the little machine and the rim on your pants in front of everyone. I keep watch from my space 15 feet away – a stare that feels more maternal than romantic.

My purse is weighed down from the candy and protein bars that layer its bottom. My shoulder aches wherever I go, whether you’re with me or not. It’s habit now, learned from your own mother, for when your pump fails or you miscalculate the amount of carbs you’ve eaten. “One piece of bread is about 15 carbs,” you told me once as you inputted 30 into the little machine from the sandwich you just ate. I went with you to the nutritionist after you got the new pump, part of the requirement. I still don’t measure out your pasta, but I do leave the box on the counter for you to estimate.

You’re gentle with me when you’re low, but rough with yourself. And when you’re high, the pump keeps you tethered like a Xanax to an anxiety attack. We both have our things, now don’t we? Thinks that are inaccessible to each other. I don’t touch your pump, just as you know not to touch my skin in moments of vulnerability.

Cyborg updates: your CGM lessens your body’s ability to heal itself. Now, two attachments. One injects, the other monitors, and both keep me up at night. You don’t notice the CGM buzzing at 2:17 AM, but I do. You don’t notice the whirring after the pump pushes more insulin once you’ve pressed a few buttons, but I do. I notice it all. I notice your shyness when undressing in the same room as me. I notice you keeping your shirt on at the pool or beach. I notice the sigh of reluctance of giving yourself insulin when we go out to eat or in the movie theater after popcorn.

You won’t talk about death with me. You won’t acknowledge you’ll most likely die before me. You won’t entertain my ideations of dying just as much as you disengage from my joys of living. You’re weighed down by the unrelenting reminder that are now a part of body, anchored and unable to move in either direction. In the dichotomy of life and death, I feel you floating beneath that spectrum in a third world, your face lit by a screen in the dark limbo.

I worry about getting tangled up in your tubing at night. Tangled in the same ways our legs get lost together. Tangled in the same way my hair tangles when you play with it, your palms always slightly sweaty. I dreamt of something pulling at my ankle, an octopus maybe, and woke up to find your tube there, delicate. I saw the movement after I heard the whirr, the liquid dancing down and around my boney ankles, and back up into your stomach.

I ask you to ask your doctor for a referral to a nutritionist again on the day of your appointment. That morning, you left your pump in the bathroom when I went to shower. I asked you to ask for the referral as I came back out and placed the machine in your palm. I see you beat yourself up about forgetting, but your movements are so automatic – a mechanical muscle memory. Untuck the shirt, unclasp the belt. Button. Zipper. Pants down to mid-thigh. A twist, pull the edge of your boxer-briefs down and hook until you hear the click. Pull pants back up. Tuck the shirt. Tuck the tubing. Button. Zipper. Clasp belt. Hook pump. This dance, the most elegant thing you’ve ever done. But you’re beautiful, always. And you’re most beautiful to me in those rare moments of presence when you forget about your body, its attachments. Those moments when our blues and our yellows mix. Hen we’re both equal parts of a vibrant green, pulsing to the beat of our star; the rhythm of injection, an accent of my heart. You forgot to ask for the referral.

--

He thinks he’s unattractive because we don’t have sex. He thinks he’s unattractive because we don’t have sex because of the tube hanging from his stomach. He thinks he’s unattractive because we don’t have sex because of the tube hanging from his stomach because it leaves pockmarks on his body. He thinks he’s unattractive not because I’m asexual.

About the Author: Jenn Storey is a hybrid writer and artist generally, and genuinely, out of touch in the American Midwest. She holds a BA in Computing and Information Technology and an MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics. Her work is featured or forthcoming in Spry Literary Journal, Peach Fuzz Magazine, Origami Journal, Clockwise Cat, and elsewhere.

Touched

In my high school days I spent uncounted hours in a Providence bookstore, gone these dozen years, browsing the stacks with intent to buy, and, until I understood the odds, hoping to meet like-minded girl-nerds. I had no idea that the more you strive and search for happiness outside of yourself, the more elusive it grows. And I overestimated—we're talking orders of magnitude here—the attractiveness of an aura of cool intellectuality, and, more crucially, my capacity at 17 to deliver it. Needless to say, my library grew faster than my social circle, not that that was a bad thing.

Though battered by Amazon, my affinity for bookstores endures. They are on my short list of places in which I can stomach shopping, right there next to hardware emporia and wine shops. Even so it gave me pause last year when Cheryl suggested we spend Black Friday afternoon at the newly-opened establishment two towns north. First, only a damn fool goes shopping on Black Friday; second, my impression without actually having seen it was that this bright, shiny, brand spanking new bookstore might be a little too trendy for me.

Its orientation toward the modern, away from the antiquarian, jibes with its physical newness. I'm uneasy that I'm not quite young enough to be in the target demographic, but it's liberating not to be subjected to ads for back braces and catheters. The place is overtly cheerful and laid back. I'm glad to see a local business well-attended, and I can still navigate the aisles, relieved that there's no gridlock, no subway-packed hell. I see smart phones—where do you not?—though also people wedged against shelf ends engrossed in actual books. I try to cling to my misgivings, but the place wins me over.

It's a bookstore cum café, with a compact and well-crafted menu of soups, salads, and wraps. Cheryl and I decide to make it a day on the town, opt for salads, and find the last seat in the house. They rack up points by not deprecating meat, and their espresso claims your attention. We fortify ourselves for a serious expedition.

Now that I've deemed the place worthy, I'm dying to apply my bookstore litmus test. It's simple: how much Balzac do they have? My teenage nirvana had a good foot of Penguin Balzacs. Here, I'm disappointed to find only a single volume of stories from the Comédie Humaine, but in compensation there are a half dozen volumes of Dickens, plus Tracy Kidder and Paul Theroux to boot. A bookstore I went to a week later had neither Balzac nor Dickens, but several Jane Austens. My test is subjective, yet flexible; hardly any bookstore fails. It's hard not to start a virtuous circle: the more you read, the more attractive all bookstores become.

Cheryl and I wander as our separate whims take us. My neck, knees, and eyes are not as flexible as they used to be, so fighting gravity along row after row of tall shelves is not an unalloyed pleasure. An unoccupied comfy chair beckons—you might know it's that kind of bookstore. I heed the call, sit, tell my feet they're welcome, and close my eyes to throttle back the brain inputs a bit.

For a scant second I feel a hand on my knee, and a woman tells me, “Don't fall asleep.” I do not know her, and she has touched me. My aura of cool intellectuality dissolves, failing me yet again. I think I replied along the lines that I was tempted but would resist. The exchange may have continued for one or two more rounds, but I don't remember. If I did, I would certainly still be going over the words, again and again, testing meanings, inflections, nuances, and especially insinuations.

Seldom do I need to ask if I'm the target of a seduction attempt. “Never” is more accurate, but I'm as vain as any man. Is “Don't fall asleep” a pickup line? There's a good argument that it's clearly not, but we hear what we want to hear. The thing for me with pickup lines is that if they're obvious enough to be unambiguous, then they're unattractive. The proper level of ambiguity must be calibrated with care, and there are so many variables to consider.

The touch is the crux. I am aware of every touch. I take every deliberate touch personally. Does a touch on the knee signify more than a touch on the shoulder? Touch complicates things for me. I can dismiss words, but not a touch. Touch catalyzes meaning from words that signify nothing.

I've never had a problem with medical contact—a special case of deliberate touching—in its gamut from immodest to uncomfortable to distasteful, but touchy-feely alienates me. Yet I've gotten better about that; I've mellowed, and I actually notice. Though I no longer take my personal space quite so seriously, I still do not willingly choose to make myself emotionally accessible to the random stranger. People whom I've known since puberty or before are now free to hug me without repercussions.

I've eked a year of idle speculation out of this incident—no one I know is so frugal he can wring as much mileage from a fantasy. It's time to lay it to rest without regrets, and I'm pleased that it had no chance to mushroom into a sterner test of character. If I'd interpreted “Don't fall asleep” in my usual bloody-minded literal fashion, I'd have recognized it as a selfless public service and no word of a come-on, an assertion of connection and belonging. Had I nodded off, the bookstore zone of hipness would have been rent by the gaucherie of an old guy snoring and drooling. Sometimes it's a moment of grace when a thing doesn't happen.

 

About the Author: Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Lucky to be above ground, lucky to have grandchildren. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Not averse to litotes. Twitter: @oldmanscanlon. On the web: http://read.oldmanscanlon.com/.

Latchkey Kid

by Nina Lichtenstein

     As a kid, the key to our apartment dangled on a string around my neck. I guess my working parents felt confident I would manage on my own in the afternoons until they came home at dinnertime. If I had any spare time on my hands I did not spend it inside reading, keeping a diary or doing puzzles, but instead, I roamed the neighborhood looking for nooks and crannies to explore, for people to talk to. Sometimes that meant getting into trouble. I was a crafty, devious and curious youngster, who loved sneaking around doing my share of shoplifting candy and comic books from the corner store. I loved to befriend my older neighbors, who were looking for company and someone who would listen to their stories. These were the adults who were around and also had time to pay attention to me. Visiting with them, I did not feel awkward as I did around my peers, and the older folks would welcome me into their apartments, smiling and offering a snack or two. No need to act cool or prove my belonging here. Although their homes would often smell funny and the foods they offered seemed old fashioned compared to what I was served at home, I loved having places to go where I was welcomed, accepted and made to feel as though I mattered. My parents never worried about my safety. It might have been the times. It might have been my parents. My dad would later tell me I was raised with “freedom under responsibility.” It’s possible I might have preferred less freedom and less responsibility. 

***

     Emilie Fleischer, or Mille, as was her nickname, was in her early eighties, and had I known the word when I was a child, I would have said she looked bohemian. In her floor-length pleated black skirts and black velvet headband dramatically accenting her thinning pageboy-shaped white hair, she fancied herself an artist, or at least a connoisseur of art. Mille was a spinster like her sister Helene, and they lived together in the apartment above us in Oslo, Norway, where I grew up. Somber paintings lined the walls of their dark apartment that smelled musty and faintly like old bodies that needed to bathe. The long, deep-red velvet curtains in the archways between the large, high-ceiling rooms made their home feel dramatic, as the fabric hung heavy from massive dark wooden rods with rounded, carved finials, the drapery forming pools of red on the floor like on a theater stage. I was happy here in this unconventional and mysterious place, where my arrival was anticipated with food and companionship. 

     I often went upstairs and rang their doorbell right after I came home from school. Mille wore dentures, and sometimes she would open the door without them. I was enthralled and a little scared by the cavernous hole of her mouth, her tongue prominently visible as she lisped her greeting past lips that turned inward, wrapped over her pink gums. When Mille offered me a snack she might fish out an overripe banana from their pantry and hand me half while mashing the other half for herself, like baby food. Sometimes she would let me mash it for her, making me feel conscientious and competent. We took turns cutting up fruits on a wooden retractable cutting board hidden directly under the kitchen counter, above the top drawer. Pulling it out, she would grasp the small white porcelain knob with a silver center that had gray dirt encrusted into its circular ridge. The board was usually moist looking or full of breadcrumbs, and the middle section of the wooden surface was worn down, creating a slight dip from years of slicing bread in the same spot.  

     Sometimes when I visited, the sisters would say they wanted to celebrate—I never knew or understood what the occasion might be other than it was something special. I would help them whip up three raw eggs and several tablespoons of sugar until the foamy blend became stiff enough to hold a shape when we pulled a spoon through it to check if it was ready. The egg cream or eggedosis is a traditional Norwegian treat loved by children and is usually served on holidays. The sisters would let me portion out the sweet, creamy froth into three identical cut crystal goblets. The fancy glasses stood gleaming, lined up on the kitchen counter where I was meticulously at work making sure I achieved an equal division of the smooth, yellow blend, licking the spills from my fingers. Helene would leave the kitchen and I could hear her rummage with bottles in their antique curio cabinet in the dining room. Taking up an entire wall, the massive piece of furniture was dark and ornate with beveled glass doors and a carved wooden front, and sat heavy in the brightest but least utilized room in the apartment. Helene would return with a fancy bottle of golden brown liquid, its gilded label inscribed with foreign words I didn’t understand. Using an old, large and dented silver spoon—so tarnished even I noticed that it needed polishing—Mille would carefully measure three spoonfuls into two of the three glasses. 

     In the living room, the deep and plush, moss-colored velvet couch was supported by clawed wooden feet and adorned with a carved top rail. Sitting between them, we slowly nursed the egg cream with teaspoons while looking through their family albums of black and white photographs. The sisters had many such books—big, heavy guardians of memories, and they would share a little story for each photograph as they took turns pointing out this one or that one. Small, square or rectangular images with white zigzag borders, attached to heavyweight, matte black pages, were held in place by tiny triangular white corner pockets. Beneath the photos, most of them faded, captions were written carefully in beautiful cursive handwriting with a thick white pencil; names of people, places and dates going back to the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when everything looked glamorous and romantic. In some of the photos I recognized a younger Helene or Mille, their dresses long, elegant, white and full of lace. Some of the faces were blurry, and many of the people seemed serious. There were photos of the sisters as girls, posing in sailor dresses with matching hats, somberly looking at the camera from the top of the front steps of their summer home, or in front of a blooming fruit tree. 

     Time would fly like this; me, squeezed comfortably in between the sisters, the heat from their soft bodies surrounding me. I looked up toward the tall windows facing the street, only partly visible through the archway connecting their two spacious living rooms, and I noticed, but did not care, that it was growing dark outside. 

     Sometimes my mother would ring the doorbell to fetch me for dinner, but it remained my little shared secret with the sisters that we had indulged in such a decadent afternoon snack.

***

     My family never knew much about their quiet, enigmatic lives, and one day when I was about thirteen, Helene died and Mille was alone for the first time in her life. She became a recluse, and when my mother would ring her doorbell to see if we could help with food-shopping or other practical things, she would peer through the crack with the safety chain still attached, trying to discern if she could trust the caller. Sometimes she would reluctantly let my mother help, but often scrutinized the receipt and claim that she had been cheated—blaming the grocer, other times my mother. My parents bought a townhouse in the suburbs around this time, and we moved away. I missed my old neighborhood and all the connections I had made there, and although we were just a short bus-ride away, it wasn't the same. The daily-ness of it was gone. Soon we learned from other neighbors in our old building that Mille had been moved to a nursing home. I took the bus to the other side of town and visited her once or twice, and while she seemed to remember me, she had what seemed like an imaginary, confusing story to tell about the thieves in the nursing home and her many lost and stolen personal items. She kept a stash of toilet paper rolls in the basket attached to her walker. I followed Millie down the hallways of her new residence so she could show me her room. Her body hunched over the handles of her walker, she mumbled, “they sure do steal around here.” 

     I don’t remember when Mille died, or the last time I saw her. I recall my mother mention the sisters’ niece, who was making all the “arrangement.” As the next of kin, she would inherit their apartment. 

     Whenever I go back to Oslo to visit family and friends, I detour through the streets of my childhood. Passing the pre-war brick apartment building where I used to live, I look up at the windows of our old living room and my parents’ bedroom above the gateway to the inner courtyard, and above them, the windows of the Fleischer sisters’ apartment. In the place of their heavy drapes are fashionable Marimekko curtains with bold, orange flowers with black eyes, and a set of glass Ikea vases, purposefully arranged.  

     I resist ringing the doorbell. I know that seeing the inside of the apartment will alter forever my ability to vividly recall the afternoons spent in their company. How I would nestle on the couch between two warm, generous women’s bodies, and sense that I belonged. They made me feel welcome and important. Their wrinkled faces beamed as they spoke, and their hands—with paper-thin almost translucent skin—gestured with generosity, offering food and stories. Our souls were kindred and in need of one another. Their door was always open. I didn't need a key.

 

 

About Nina Lichtenstein: 
Nina is a native of Oslo, Norway, and has a PHD in French literature. She has lived in CT for nearly 30 years, where she kept busy studying, teaching and raising her three sons. An empty nester, she recently migrated north to Maine to pursue a quiet writing life, which is constantly interrupted. Her first book, on Jewish women writers from North Africa, just came out. Some of Nina's writing lives on her blogs https://vikingjewess.com/ and https://thatsfunnyyoudontlookjewish.wordpress.com/, and other essays have been published on the Brevity Blog, in The Washington Post, Lilith Magazine, Literary Mama, and Hevria, among other places. You can learn more about Nina and her work at her website: https://www.ninalichtenstein.com/

Cobble Hill

by Robert Boucheron

     In June 1978, I graduated from the Yale School of Architecture and started my first full-time job in New York as a drafter-designer for the firm of Harold Buttrick, a gentleman architect on the Upper East Side. His office was in the English basement of his townhouse. He designed apartment renovations and new houses for his well-to-do friends and neighbors, with forays into their private schools, charitable projects, and carriage-trade shops. His wife, a granddaughter of the New York architect Stanford White, was also an architect. She raised their five children and drew residential projects of her own upstairs.

     Buttrick was a benevolent despot to his staff of five. They included a secretary named Amy, an office manager named Hal, and two other drafter-designers. We three and Hal occupied the front room, with a door and window on the street. Amy was somewhere in the middle, and a library-conference room was in back, along with a private office for Buttrick. He was often out meeting clients and possible clients, socializing and drumming up business, a chancy pursuit.

     “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip,” he said.

     We drew in mechanical pencil with graphite leads on vellum, a translucent rag paper that came in large sheets or rolls as wide as three feet. For a presentation, we traced in black ink using filament pens which often clogged or made blots. Drawing in ink was a slow and nerve-wracking task. We used a T-square or a parallel rule, which ran on wires attached to the drafting board, a triangle, a compass, and an array of templates. We wore dress shirts and neckties, professional attire which got in the way. Each man devised his own solution to the necktie—flipped over the shoulder, stuffed in the front pocket, clipped to the shirt front, or tucked in military-style. Ink and graphite got on our hands and clothes. Old photographs of drafters show them wearing sleeve protectors, sheaths that covered wrist to elbow.

     From the vellum sheets, we made prints on newsprint coated with photosensitive chemicals. An improvement over the blueprints that showed white lines on a blue field, these blueline or blackline prints were easier to read and better for marking corrections in red. A large office had its own machine to make prints. Buttrick’s firm sent drawings to a printer located near East 42nd Street. As the youngest on staff, I was the office boy who took drawings downtown by subway. In the heat of summer, clutching big rolls of paper that grew limp from humidity, I boarded decrepit subway cars covered with graffiti like psychedelic circus wagons. I returned with fresh prints that reeked of the ammonia used to develop them.

     A young architect serves three or more years of apprenticeship before he or she can take the state examination to qualify for a license. Hal, the office manager, gave me on-the-job training. In his thirties, he was short and stocky, smart and blunt.

     “You ask too many questions,” he said. “Instead of constantly interrupting me, use the library and figure things out.”

     Hal taught me the basics of architectural drafting, how to measure an existing building, how to inspect a construction site, and a little about the methods of getting a project built. Early in his career, he said, he was sent downtown to City Hall to deliver a sealed envelope to the official in charge of granting permits. In the 1970s, he used the high-priced services of an expediter, a person skilled in the New York City Building Code and the personalities who administered it. A quick-sketch artist, Hal drew a caricature of this man, named Nat Silberman, as a buzzing gnat.

     Architectural lettering was a stylized way of writing notes on drawings using straightedge and triangle. You flattened the lead to a chisel point by rubbing it on a scratch pad or sandpaper. You wrote in block capitals in evenly spaced lines. Verticals were vertical, and horizontals had an upward slant. It was considered good form to line up notes on the left in a column, and not to scatter them across the drawing. Arrows from the notes to the things they described could be straight or curved, but like electrical wires in a circuit, the arrows must never cross. There were symbols, abbreviations, and rules. The number “8” for example, was made of two ovals. A string of dimensions had to be straight, and the feet and inches had to be checked several times to be sure they added up. Some drafters used a non-print blue pencil for guidelines. You could draw curves freehand, but a novice was advised to use the giant ellipse template or the French curve. Like a monk in a scriptorium, I labored over my drafting until Hal approved.

     One morning, Buttrick hailed a cab and took me across town to the Dakota, the famous cooperative apartment building on Central Park West at 72nd Street. He left me to measure the kitchen, pantry, and service rooms for a modernization. Preparations were underway for a formal luncheon in the palatial suite on the park. As I sketched and inserted my tape measure through the hubbub, a tiny woman dressed in black darted here and there. She ignored me, and I said nothing. Later I learned that she owned the apartment.

     Other projects on which I helped were the eighteenth floor of the Chrysler Building leased to a law firm, a penthouse atop a grand apartment building on Fifth Avenue, a baboon exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, and a billiard room over a garage on a Long Island estate. All that first year, I felt elated. I was working in the profession I had chosen, on interesting projects, in the city to which I aspired. After seven years of higher education, with their arbitrary demands and expenses, partly met by a series of odd jobs, at last I was earning a salary.

     As for a place to live, I made shift. My first week in New York, I slept on a sofa in the apartment of an acquaintance. The apartment was high in an old building on Riverside Drive, with a sweeping view of the Hudson River. A museum administrator, Lila was married. Her husband was away on business, and she was absent most of the time. Witty and gracious, she owed me nothing. She got nothing in return when I decamped, suitcase in hand.

     The Buttricks had a schoolteacher friend who left town for vacation in the months of July and August, a single woman who sublet her apartment. Miriam accepted me without question as a subtenant. The apartment was on East 89th Street in a quirky brick pile built as a residential hotel in the 1890s. Walls were massive, windows were hard to open, and bathroom fixtures dated from the period. The apartment was crammed with antique furniture and knick-knacks. I worried aloud that I might break something.

     “There’s nothing valuable,” Miriam said. “There is, however, a box on the mantel that contains love letters my father wrote when he was courting my mother. He was aboard a ship in the South Pacific. You might enjoy reading them.”

     I got through the summer without damage and without reading the letters. Excited to be in the big city and on my own, I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, trooped through museums, jogged around the Central Park Reservoir, and rode the Staten Island Ferry. 

     As September loomed, I looked for an apartment. To afford it, I would share with a friend from Yale, a man who worked for the federal civil service. We found a place on West 21st Street near Ninth Avenue in a renovated tenement. A bedroom window faced a light well. Street windows faced the rear of Public School 11, a dreary prospect. It was also noisy, as children played in the school playground. We were not prepared for the squalor of low-budget city life. We were not well-matched, either. Domestic life became strained, and after a year, he stopped talking. I looked for another berth.

     A new friend lived in Brooklyn. I visited him on Wyckoff Street, walked the neighborhood, and checked ads for apartments for rent. In March 1980, I moved to Strong Place, in the area called Cobble Hill.

     South of Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill is much like it, with a stock of brownstone, brick and stucco row houses, “one of the city’s finest collections of nineteenth-century houses,” according to The Encyclopedia of New York City, by Kenneth T. Jackson and Philip Kasinitz. Built up between 1835 and 1860, the twenty-two blocks are low-rise and intimate, with plenty of trees, several old churches and a synagogue, and a few apartment buildings and schools. Long Island College Hospital occupies the northwest corner, and businesses line the boundary streets: Atlantic Avenue, Court Street, Degraw Street, and Hicks Street, which parallels the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The New York City Council created the Cobble Hill Historic District in 1969 and extended it in 1988.

     Turned ninety degrees to the prevailing grid are six blocks formed by streets one block long: Cheever Place, Strong Place, and Tompkins Place. Henry Street and Clinton Street run through. The arrangement discourages traffic, while it encourages safety and privacy. Even more private is Warren Place, a mews-type development off Warren Street. Two rows of diminutive cottages, eleven feet wide, line an alley planted as a common garden. Philanthropist Alfred Treadway White developed Warren Place and the nearby Towers and Home apartment blocks on Hicks Street as affordable housing for the working class in 1876. Romanesque Revival in style, an early example of such housing built for profit, they were restored in 1986. Most of Cobble Hill, however, was built for the middle class: bankers, merchants, and lawyers who commuted by ferry to lower Manhattan. 

     History had come and gone. The Battle of Long Island in the Revolutionary War was fought here, but its earthworks were erased. The western edge, toward the harbor, was fortified in the War of 1812, also invisible. The hill that gave the area its name was cut down long ago. In the early twentieth century the area declined, and immigrants moved in. Cobble Hill took on an Italian flavor. The Catholic church of St. Frances Cabrini stands at one end of Strong Place, where I lived. By the 1950s, new buyers were renovating houses, and a revival was underway. In 1963, a tiny park was carved in the middle, between Congress Street and Veranda Place.

     By chance I stepped into an urban wonderland, a pocket of architectural style. The one thing missing was public transportation. To reach the nearest subway stop, I hiked a mile to the north or east. Remoteness may have been the reason Cobble Hill survived intact. But the daily commute on trains packed full was an ordeal. The transit strike of April 1980 made matters worse for the ten days it lasted. Stranded commuters shared cabs, walked, bicycled, and stayed with friends in Manhattan. I did some of each. The Brooklyn Promenade, the elevated walkway with its spectacular view of New York Harbor and the towers of Manhattan, was a great place to stroll. And I loved the domestic scale of Brooklyn. Could green space and historical charm outweigh inconvenience?

     The house on Strong Place had three stories with one apartment on each floor. Seventeen feet wide, it had a square-shaped stair in the middle, with a skylight. My apartment was on the second floor, with a big bedroom in front, a galley kitchen and a little sitting room in back, and a narrow passage between. On the passage was a bath as compact as an airplane lavatory. Built for a single family, the house had been adapted.

     The new owner lived on the first floor with his wife and two young sons. Dan wanted to restore the house, but for the moment he needed the rental income. He apologized for the archaic cast-iron radiators. He promptly fixed some plaster damage—there was a leak at the front window. He said I could climb the fire escape in back to the flat roof, since I had no balcony. One summer day, I did climb to the roof, though getting past the cornice was tricky. From up there, I looked into fenced back yards, a comparative study in private gardens. I lay on a towel with a book, fell asleep, and woke sunburned.

     The landlord was friendly, but we saw little of each other. The neighbors threw an annual block party in the fall. Caught by surprise, I wandered through, sampled the spicy ethnic food, and said hello. Long-time residents were wary. I did not connect, and I was unsure where I belonged. What I am sure of is that odd apartment of less than five hundred square feet was the first place I could call my own. Up to the age of twenty-seven, I shared a bedroom with a brother, a dorm room with a student, or an apartment with roommates. There were episodes of house-sitting and solitude, but this was my first crack at making a home. 

     I shopped for furniture in Brooklyn antique shops. I measured the apartment, drew the floor plan, and sketched possible arrangements. I still have the drawing in pencil on yellow trace paper. I also have a map of “Cobble Hill and Vicinity” that I drew in pencil. I gave photocopies of it to Manhattan friends I invited to visit. One of these, scornful of the “bridge and tunnel crowd,” said I had become “geographically undesirable.”

     The antique mirror, chest of drawers, brass bed, cast-iron lamp, and colored prints I bought were of no great value. My one find was a Morris chair, an early type of armchair recliner invented by the English artist William Morris. Stripped of green paint, my Morris chair turned out to be made of mahogany, with front feet carved as lion’s paws. I discarded the worn cushions and had new ones made, covered with a Liberty of London fabric. I bought the chair for thirty five dollars and kept it for many years, through many moves. It showed up in an antique shop last year priced at three hundred fifty dollars.

     In the bedroom, I laid a flush hollow-core door across a low bookcase and a filing cabinet to create a desk and drafting board. Young architects yearn for independent projects, and they often moonlight for extra money. During my stay in Brooklyn, my parents left upstate New York for rural Virginia. They bought land and asked me to draw a new house. This I did, with visits to them and the wooded site. They built the house in 1981, and they lived there until my father died in 1994. I drew other projects, and I wrote poems and stories on my college typewriter.

     Nightlife in Manhattan was a problem. Taxis were extravagant. The New York City Subway ran all night, but with long waits and anxious rides. Then there was that long walk home from the station. Once after midnight, full of nervous energy, I walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge. Halfway I saw what a risk I had taken, but by then there was no turning back. No one else was abroad. It was winter, the sky was clear, and the steel suspension cables shimmered. The fresh air cleared my head. Warmed by exercise, I took off my jacket and slung it over my shoulder. I reached home safe and ready for bed.

     About a year after I started work, Harold Buttrick moved his office to a rental space in Midtown, and a nephew of his wife joined the firm. Six years older than I, a Harvard graduate, Samuel White had greasy hair and a slight lisp. He affected striped shirts and Italian shoes. My mentor Hal, who had hoped to become a junior partner, perceived his doom. He left the firm to pursue independent practice. I was laid off briefly, then wrote in a letter:

I went back to work Monday at Harry’s request, though I saw no sign of work overload. That day after work, Harry and Sam and I went out for a drink at Crawdaddy, a swank restaurant. To me it was a puzzling conversation. On the one hand, they were both critical of me for not speaking up more, Harry because he misses the benefit of my opinion, and Sam because he senses controlled resentment. On the other hand, Harry dropped a hint that some sort of promotion may be coming my way: when a project small enough to cut my teeth on comes along, it will be mine to follow through construction. I suspect Sam called the meeting, as he was negative and threatening.

     Soon after this, Buttrick invited us again for a drink after work, this time at the Harvard Club on West 44th Street. In brown leather armchairs in the vast parlor meant to resemble a baronial hall, he again praised my work. Sam, as if to make casual conversation, quizzed me on my plans for the future. He then suggested I might be happier employed somewhere else. That night I made a panicky phone call to Hal. 

     “You have to face reality,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

     I searched for a new job, found one, and gave two weeks’ notice. Buttrick was sorry to see me go and asked for a delay. Again, there was no turning back.

     At the firm of Edward Larrabee Barnes, a prominent American architect, I joined a team to develop the design of the new Dallas Museum of Art. The environment was high-style, and the staff of fifty architects was a little United Nations. They came from Turkey, Finland, Pakistan, England, Venezuela, and especially China, thanks to John Lee, the second-in-command, who came from Shanghai. A Chinese classmate from Yale worked for Barnes, and she welcomed me.

     Weary from the job hunt and the longer commute, with no family or other tie to Brooklyn, and with a higher salary to pay living expenses, I looked for an apartment in Manhattan. I went to crowded showings, filled out rental applications, put down deposits, and crossed my fingers. At last I nabbed a rent-stabilized studio. I returned to Chelsea, to better subway access and a fifth-floor view.

     I joked about my year and a half of exile. Now I remember Cobble Hill and sigh. I hope that Dan restored his house, and that he and his family lived there happily ever after.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Oxford Magazine, Short Fiction.

From Now On or Bust

by Melanie Lee

     Today was Day Three of what everybody in the whole world said was From Now On and my knees were going to buckle but I said they didn’t hurt. Kids were playing. I gave my mother a peck instead of a hug. I would see her again the next morning, probably — she told me again that she had to come home from work after I went to bed. Ophelia would pick me up and take me home. I pictured Ophelia and pushed all the fluttering down my arms as I walked past Miss Cecil into the noisy clouds of Kindergarten. Mommy waved her hand near her high cheekbone before she left. I walked around the groups until it was time to do whatever Miss Cecil said.

     This was how the rest of the days the rest of the year went.

     After lunch Denise would climb the monkey bars, jut out her jaw like a pirate, swing and jab all around with her air sword. A strip of her brown bangs always dropped over her eyebrow when she turned to face this way. Each time I started to climb higher, she scrambled over the bars to block me. When I told Miss Cecil that Denise wouldn’t let me go high, she told me to talk to her tomorrow.

     I faced Denise. “Miss Cecil said.” I walked over to the edge of the bars and climbed up, then clambered sideways to the center. This was going well. But Denise closed in, locked and stuck out her jaw even more, squinted the points of her eyes even tighter and swung her sword wider. “I’ll push you off.”

     I considered huffing bravery, but I checked and it was a lot of bars down. I hated seeing me all crumpled at the bottom so letting Denise win was nothing. Bar by bar, I climbed all the way down. I found something new: a soft path of square red tiles made of rectangles and triangles. I followed it until I found a bench between two painted wooden towers set up like a storybook. There wasn’t any door to the towers, but even so, the bench was where I went during lunch.

     Late one afternoon, Miss Cecil and her assistant told us to form circles between the bench and the monkey bars and hold hands. They told a songstory I couldn’t hear most of but everyone else was walking around and I walked with them. They peeled us off into lines, saying we were getting our coats for a journey over mountains, through jungles, to animals in a faraway country. 

     I was ready for the trip. I bounced on my toes. My eyes got bright. I would leave Denise, Miss Cecil and Ophelia far behind, all alone forever. Maybe Mommy would come sometimes.

     The lines stopped in front of the cubbies. I waited for Thomas to get his coat on before I walked to mine. When I was pulling my coat from its hook I froze in a flash of newest knowing: we were just going home. Not going on a journey or seeing animals. Not leaving anyone here. Ophelia would be downstairs with the mothers in a few minutes.

     I was stuck in my throat. Stuck… I turned my head. The other kids were black figures between me and the sunlight coming over from outside through the windows.

     I swung my eyes around again for anything that knew me. My book bag was rumpled on the floor of the cubby.

     “I need to get my coat.” It was Cathy. I looked at her. Long blond hair, blue eyes. I looked at my bookbag.

     “Move. I need my coat. Miss Cecil.”

     Miss Cecil came up beside me. “People are waiting. Put your coat on. Let Cathy get her coat.” I did. The line moved. I crushed my ribs in, went wherever Miss Cecil led me. I kept everything in about that day, and many more, except for what wouldn’t stay in, like the vomit.

     That came the next day at lunchtime and the next and the next. The teachers didn’t yell at me at school. Lucky me. But I found out they did tell Ophelia.

     The train was rocking on the subway tracks home when she told me what they’d told her.

     “No I didn’t.” 

     “Don’t lie or I’ll slap you.” I hadn’t heard about slaps before. The train rocked some more. “I want you to stop throwing up. I’ll slap you if you do and I’ll slap you if you lie to me about it.”

     I stopped vomiting a few days later, slap free. Smart and safe, that was me. Then my lips started bleeding while I was asleep. Sleeping next to Mommy didn’t stop it.  Sometimes I’d wake up feeling blood running out my lower lip down my chin. Fast flutters about the blood falling on the bottom sheet were rising, so I had to think faster than the blood falling. I picked up the top sheet and squeezed my lips into both sides. Brown spots all over my side of the sheet showed me what my lips were like. I showed Mommy.  She said not to worry, got up and went to work without a stop.

     Ophelia looked at the sheets. “These will be hard to wash. Stop using them.” I couldn’t see any of the spots from the hall. “Use a tissue.”

     I forgot not to use the sheet the next day but a slap never came, even though Ophelia was around all day. By two days later, I’d learned the value of tissues. It was a lot of work to reach the box every day. I was surprised when my lips stopped bleeding soon.

     I walked around our apartment slap-and-word free. Ophelia was in everything, then.

 

 

About Melanie Lee: I live with my husband, daughter, our dog and hedgehog across the street from a beautiful park. I write memoir and poetry. onegreendolphinstreet.com

Schenectady by Robert Boucheron

     The Dutch arrived by proxy in 1609, with the voyage of Henry Hudson up the river that bears his name. They built a fort at the tip of Manhattan in 1614, and another fort at the site of Albany in 1624, the farthest point that ships could reach. They were keenly interested in the fur trade, especially beaver. They also sent colonists to farm. Headed by Arendt van Curler, a group of Dutch farmers from Albany bought land to the west from the natives in 1661. On the south bank of the Mohawk River, they built a square village of four blocks surrounded by a log palisade.

     “Schenectady” is supposed to derive from a Mohawk word that means “beyond the pines,” referring to miles of flat, sandy pine forest. There are many early spellings of the name, which strikes some people as comic. It was a standing joke in vaudeville to say that a character was from Schenectady.

     The place had a strategic cachet, probably recognized by the Mohawks and then by the Dutch. It was a natural crossing point for land and water travel. A ferry was established, and in 1808 a bridge designed by Theodore Burr. An engineering marvel, the Burr Bridge was constructed of wood trusses on stone piers and covered with wood siding. At 900 feet, it was the longest such bridge in the world at the time. The wood structure was replaced by steel in 1874. That in turn was replaced by a modern highway span, but the stone piers remain.

     Schenectady far outgrew its origin. The little square village became The Stockade, an enclave of eighteenth and nineteenth-century houses. A fire in 1819 destroyed much of it, including a commercial waterfront to the west, on a channel of the river called the Binne Kill. The Stockade became the state’s first designated historic district in 1962. Now restored, with cobblestone streets, it hosts walking tours and an annual outdoor art show.

     English warships took control of the New Netherland colony in 1664, and the English crown renamed it New York. But the Dutch people, their language, and their landholdings persisted. Dutch names are still common in the area, and the First Reformed Church holds pride of place. Built of gray stone in a massive Romanesque style, shaded by trees, it broods in the middle of The Stockade. Soon after my family moved to Schenectady in 1966, my older sister was married there, and we joined the church in a kind of quid pro quo.

     From the start, the Dutch brought African slaves to the area, and Dutch men took native wives. During King William’s War (1688-1697) which also goes by other names, French soldiers from Canada and their Algonquin allies attacked Schenectady. This fact was proclaimed in a lovely cast-iron sign, the first thing you saw on entering the city from the north: 

     Settled by Van Curler 1661

     Burned by French and Indians, February 8, 1690

The attackers killed 62 people and took 27 captive, both numbers including Africans. Marking the same event, a New York State historical sign in The Stockade notes the following:

     Ride of Symon Schermerhoorn
     On night of Feb. 8, 1690, although wounded
     he rode 20 miles to Albany warning settlers.

     According to the Schermerhorn Genealogy and Family Chronicles by Richard Schermerhorn, Jr., published in 1914, Simon (1658-1696) and his brothers Jacob and Cornelius were masters of ships plying the Hudson between Albany and New York as early as 1684. The shipping business prospered, and the family became wealthy. Simon moved to New York in 1691. “The tale of his famous ride . . . at the time of the Schenectady Massacre has been repeated to many generations of Schermerhorns.” The similarity of the story to Paul Revere’s ride in 1775 is striking. The story does not say why Schermerhorn escaped instead of staying to fight. It does say that he was shot in the leg, rode through bitter cold, and arrived in Albany at five o’clock in the morning, “more dead than alive.” 

     Schenectady continued to figure in conflicts. The French and Indians attacked again in 1748. During the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Saratoga, an important victory for the Americans, was fought not far to the north in 1777. General George Washington visited at least three times, including a sleepover in 1782.

     After the Revolutionary War, inhabitants at last broke the power of the Dutch landowners and achieved representative government. Schenectady acquired a city charter in 1798. Around this time, in 1785, the Schenectady Academy was started, to be refounded as Union College in 1795. The college moved in 1814 to a campus planned by the French landscape architect Joseph Jacques Ramée. A model for other American colleges, including the University of Virginia founded in 1819, Union College has the first comprehensively planned campus in the United States. From the Union College website: “We are a small, residential, independent liberal arts college committed to integrating the humanities and social sciences with science and engineering in new and exciting ways.”

     Union’s centerpiece is Nott Memorial Hall, named for the first president, Eliphalet Nott. Designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, built of stone, and completed in 1879 in an elaborate Victorian Gothic style, the building has sixteen sides and a polychrome dome raised on a clearstory drum. Paved with colorful encaustic tile, the interior is ringed by cast-iron balconies. Formerly the campus library, the Nott Memorial is used for lectures, concerts, and exhibitions. In the 1960s, I attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah there. It appears as a backdrop in the 1973 film The Way We Were, starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford.

     In the 1790s, Schenectady shows up in an literary context, the Memoirs of Madame de la Tour du Pin. Born as Henrietta-Lucy Dillon, Madame de la Tour du Pin was a French-English aristocrat. As a girl, she lived at the court of Versailles. She and her husband fled France during the Terror. They reached Boston and then New York, where other French exiles gathered, including the Marquis de Talleyrand and Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who would later write La Physiologie du goût. In 1794, with young children in tow, Monsieur and Madame de la Tour du Pin sailed up the Hudson to Albany.

As we did not wish to stay in Albany itself, General Schuyler undertook to find a nearby farm for us to buy. . . . The property was four miles from Albany, on the line of the road which it was planned to build from Albany to Schenectady, a town which was then expanding rapidly.

     By her own account, Madame de la Tour du Pin became a capable farm wife. “My butter was much in demand.” She adopted the dress of the local women, cooked and cleaned, and bought two African slaves.

One day, towards the end of September, I was out in the yard, chopper in hand, busy cutting the bone of a leg of mutton which I was about to roast on the spit for our dinner. . . . Suddenly from behind me, a deep voice remarked in French, “Never was a leg of mutton spitted with greater majesty.” Turning quickly round, I saw M. de Talleyrand and M. de Beaumetz. They had learned our whereabouts from General Schuyler.

     The de la Tour du Pins stayed for two years, until the political situation in France allowed them to return. While they lived in their rustic log cabin, “a pretty cart laden with fine vegetables often passed our house. It belonged to the Quaker Shakers, who had a settlement six or seven miles from us.” The cart driver invited them to visit, and they did.

     The settlement was Niskayuna, led by Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784) from Manchester, England. Niskayuna, also called Watervliet in historical accounts, was the first Shaker village, started in 1776 and formally organized in 1787. Niskayuna grew to about 350 members at its greatest extent, and it dissolved in 1938. Much of the farmland was redeveloped as the Albany County Airport. The village is now a historic site open to the public.

     The Shakers and their mystical, celibate lifestyle were seldom talked about in the 1960s, an era more concerned with the Vietnam War, women’s liberation, the new sexual freedom, and drugs. The Shakers are known today through their design of tools, objects, furniture, and buildings; for innovations in seeds, farming and food distribution; and for the equal status of women in their communities. Two of the best books on Shaker society are The Communistic Societies of the United States, From Personal Visit and Observation (1875) by Charles Nordhoff, and The People Called Shakers (1953) by Edward Deming Andrews. More recent studies, including one by Priscilla Brewer, have examined Shaker beliefs, how their communities evolved, and reasons for their decline.

     At Niskayuna, nine buildings of the central cluster are preserved, as well as an orchard, a herb garden, a pond, and the cemetery where Mother Ann Lee and other early leaders are buried. It is a peaceful, rural place. In its heyday, according to the self-guided walking tour pamphlet:

The Watervliet community operated as a mini-industrial center where woodenware and chairs were mass-produced and agricultural products manufactured for sale to the outside world. They were among the first to standardize production and make use of quality controls. . . . Shakers invented a vacuum sealed tin can and canned hundreds of pounds of fruits and vegetables.

     The meeting house built in 1848 resembles a gymnasium, with a sprung wood floor for the communal dances which were the Shaker form of worship. The dances grew out of the original “shaking” in religious ecstasy. Gestures were symbolic—hands were extended with the palms up, for example, to receive divine gifts. Since Sunday worship was open to the public, it became a performance for which the congregation rehearsed. The meeting house contains bleachers for spectators, as well as high interior windows for Shaker elders in an upstairs room to keep an eye on things. Shakers were noted for their healthy lifestyle and longevity. A secondary benefit of the dances may have been exercise, a forerunner of yoga and movement classes today.

     The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 was a decisive event for Schenectady. The canal connected Lake Erie in the west along the Mohawk valley to the Hudson River, a navigable route from the Midwest to the seaport of New York, which quickly outgrew all other ports on the east coast. In the 1830s, railroads were built on the same route, among the earliest in the United States. Industry sprang up in a string of upstate cities: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, and Troy. Iron manufacturing was an early pursuit. Schenectady and Troy became known for cast-iron stoves, and during the Civil War for production of artillery.

     As in New England, water power led to establishment of mills on the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers. The Harmony Mills are a group of red-brick buildings in Cohoes near Schenectady, similar to the complexes in Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts. The site is open to the public. Begun in the 1830s and extensively rebuilt in the 1860s, the Harmony Mills are documented in black-and-white photographs, measured drawings and text in A Report of the Mohawk-Hudson Area Survey by Robert M. Vogel, published in 1973 by the Smithsonian Institution.

The Harmony Mills took a great interest in the well-being and surroundings of its employees. The company built tenements for its workers. . . . The Mastodon Mill is an unusually elaborate example of Victorian textile mill construction. The two principal blocks, north and south, built several years apart, are similar and coaxial. Each is of five stories including the usable mansard attic.

     Railroad industries thrived in Schenectady in the late nineteenth century. They consolidated in 1901 as the American Locomotive Company. In 1887, Thomas Edison, based in New Jersey, moved his Edison Machine Works to Schenectady. Soon after, in 1892, Schenectady became the headquarters for his General Electric Company. ALCO and GE, as they were called, developed huge industrial plants. Each was a complex of buildings and streets surrounded by a fence with gates, a city within the city. Other manufacturing included carriages, brooms, and a patent medicine called Dr. Carter’s Pink Pills for Pale People. But Schenectady styled itself “the electric city” and “the city that lights and hauls the world.”

     In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany and Poland, as well as African Americans from the South, came to work in the factories and in construction. The city reached a peak population of 96,000 in 1930. Industry was marked by innovation. Schenectady acquired the second commercial radio station in the United States, WGY. In 1928 in Schenectady, General Electric produced the first regular television broadcast. Politics were progressive. George R. Lunn was elected mayor in 1911 as a Socialist, and again in 1915 as a Democrat.

     Charles Steinmetz (1865-1923), a mathematician and electrical inventor employed by General Electric, was a notable figure in Schenectady at this time. He was born in Wroclaw, Silesia, in what is now Poland, to a German Jewish family, with congenital dwarfism, hunchback and hip dysplasia. From boyhood, he excelled in school. As an adult, he was about four feet tall, crooked, with a beard. Photographs often show him with a cigar. He came to the United States in 1889. Steinmetz helped to develop alternating electric current and electromagnetic motors, and he amassed over 200 patents. To provide engineers for the new field, he started the electrical engineering department at Union College. He also served as president of the city’s Board of Education and president of the City Council.

     With other scientists, inventors, and executives, Steinmetz built a house for himself in the General Electric Realty Plot, a 75-acre tract that became one of America’s earliest planned communities in 1899. Adjacent to the Union College campus, the Realty Plot features grand homes in a variety of architectural styles, including Tudor, Dutch Colonial, Queen Anne, and Spanish Colonial. Among the wealth of details is a copper dragon perched on the roof ridge of 1226 Wendell Avenue. A modified California Bungalow at 1155 Avon Road was the first all-electric house, demonstrated in 1903. The Brown School was built in 1905 for Realty Plot children and run by Helen Brown. The First Unitarian Society, designed by Edward Durrell Stone, was built in 1961. Groot’s Creek Ravine runs through the middle of the tract, privately owned and maintained as a natural area and bird sanctuary. 

     In the middle of the twentieth century, Schenectady produced a historian. Larry Hart (1920-2004) was born in Schenectady, attended city public schools, and graduated from Union College. From 1945 to 1960, he worked as a photographer and reporter for the Schenectady Union-Star, and from 1960 to 1980, he did the same for the Schenectady Gazette. He wrote a weekly column called “Tales of Old Dorp” for the Gazette, “dorp” being a Dutch word for a small town.

     Hart compiled three books from his newspaper column: Schenectady’s Golden Era: 1880-1930 (1974); Tales of Old Schenectady, Volume I: The Formative Years (1975); and Tales of Old Schenectady, Volume II: The Changing Scene (1977). Self-published and abundantly illustrated, the books show colorful characters, local businesses, natural disasters, building demolitions, and vanished landmarks. In his preface to Volume II, Hart says:

The anecdotes selected for these volumes of Tales of Old Schenectady do not follow any chronological timetable. Instead, they are told at random in non-textbook fashion for the enjoyment of those who prefer to take their history in easy doses.

     As in other upstate cities, in 1925 the Erie Canal was filled in to become Erie Boulevard. A landmark at the corner of Erie Boulevard and State Street was Nicholaus German Restaurant, remodeled in 1901 with a turret and cornice to recall the Old World of its owners, Louis and Sophie Nicholaus. At first, it was a men’s saloon with a red mahogany bar and brass rail, with hotel rooms above. The restaurant expanded under later generations. Hart devotes several pages to Nicholaus, including the talking parrot Loppa, a scarlet macaw from Guatemala who entertained patrons in the bar from 1907 until his death in 1936. At that time, he was stuffed and added to the décor. The restaurant closed in 1975, but the ornate building still stands.

     In 1933, Schenectady acquired a new City Hall, a neoclassical confection like a huge wedding cake, designed by McKim, Mead and White. But from the Great Depression onward, the city declined. ALCO shrank to a shadow of itself, and the plant closed in 1969. General Electric steadily reduced its manufacturing. After World War II, retail business moved to the suburbs, especially the triangular area between Schenectady, Albany and Troy.

     In 1946, the federal government established the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, with General Electric as its operator. KAPL was located in Niskayuna, several miles away from the main GE plant, and adjacent to GE’s Research and Development Center. The two research centers provided a host of well-paid jobs for a highly educated, international work force.

     Niskayuna in turn became an affluent suburb. In the 1950s, the town reorganized its school system. In 1957, it completed a new high school, staffed with newly hired department chairs and teachers. Rapid growth required an addition, and in 1967 the building doubled in size. From a report titled Niskayuna Schools at 50, “the school population rose from 1,530 students in 1968 to 1,870 students in 1974.” A vocational-technical program offered job training. As a college preparatory school, Niskayuna ranked high at state and national levels. It placed bright students in a fast track, with senior year courses at the college level for advanced placement credit. In the 1960s, elective courses included computer programming and Russian language.

     When my father took an executive job at General Electric headquarters in 1966, he bought a new house in a new subdivision that lay in the Niskayuna district. My brothers and I attended Niskayuna High School.

     I took my studies seriously, earned high grades, and was president of the Honor Society. Bookish and awkward, I practiced each fall with the soccer team, though the coach rarely let me take the field in a game. Small for my age, I played one of Medea’s children in a school drama club production of the play by Euripides. I played clarinet in the school band and orchestra. Thanks to a program set up by the music department, I took clarinet lessons from Augustin Duques of the Juilliard School. He and a brass colleague drove up once a week from New York City. I joined the Junior Etude Club, a city-wide group that met monthly to perform. A 1968 photograph in the Gazette shows four new members seated on the grass, with me holding a guitar. I never played guitar, so the photographer must have staged us.

     In the 1960s, the downtown district was dreary, centered on a seven-block stretch of State Street, but it still had most of its buildings. They included banks, a New York Central Railroad station in the Beaux Arts style, and the dour Schenectady County Office Building at the top of a hill. The Carl Company was a multi-floor department store where my mother worked briefly. Hermie’s Music Store sold sheet music, instruments, and musical supplies. I often went there to buy clarinet reeds. Proctor’s Theater, built in 1926 as a movie palace and vaudeville theater, with an interior arcade, was a cultural landmark. There I saw the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The behemoth Hotel Van Curler, Georgian Revival in style and built of red brick in 1925, went bankrupt in 1968. It was renovated as Schenectady County Community College, part of the State University of New York system.

     Schenectady had a YMCA on State Street. On rainy summer days, the Schenectady Inner City Ministry day camp met in the gymnasium. I was a counsellor. On sunny days, we boarded school buses and drove to a camp in the woods west of the city. About equal numbers of poor black and white children got their first dose of nature. As counsellors, we were encouraged to get involved with the children, so I visited the slum where many of them lived. The neighborhood called Hamilton Hill, just south of downtown, was my first dose of urban poverty.

     General Electric moved any lingering executive jobs from Schenectady to its corporate headquarters in Darien, Connecticut in 1980. Some manufacturing remained, notably of large turbines used to generate electricity. My father transferred to a GE plant in Virginia. My younger brother Edward graduated from Union College, while my older brother Pete moved from tool-and-die machine work at the main GE plant to making custom experimental apparatus at GE’s Research and Development Center. Schenectady as a whole continued to decline until the end of the century.

     At that point, the state government in Albany realized that it could develop office space in Schenectady more easily than in the capital. State Street filled gaps from demolition with new office buildings. Schenectady gained population in the 2010 census, up to 66,000. When I visited then, after an absence of thirty years, State Street looked revitalized, with newly planted trees. Hermie’s was still in business, and Proctor’s Theater had been freshened up.

     Samuel Johnson wrote, “If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone.” Allow me to introduce myself, then. I am from Schenectady.

 

 

About the Author: Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Lowestoft Chronicle, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, Short Fiction (UK), The Short Story (UK). His plays will be staged this year in Concord, North Carolina and the Detroit Fringe Forward Festival.