Saturday, June 05, 2010

Paths



The Library had been a parking garage. Really. I sort of remembered this. The old Lawton Street with the dark stone courthouse that was right there, and the ancient Western Union office that leaned against the back of the First National Bank for a century before anyone outside of England had heard of Barclay's Bank that now operated the massive arch-windowed brick building at the corner of Main, the Te-Amo Cigar Store that sat across from it and, the length of the block away the crumbling stone ruin that contained both the elegant stairway where we'd first tried shooting up and the Post Road mile marker "17 miles to N. York" that described a very much smaller big city from centuries ago. I was a small child held by my dad when Bobby Kennedy came to town one winter and held a rally right below this very window. It was a cold winter night and I sat on his shoulders and looked around and, yes, a dirty concrete parking garage towered above me covered with incomprehensible lettering.
I'd been away from home, off guarding the North Atlantic from foreign threats, when they'd ripped down the courthouse, remade the concrete hulk, and moved the library from the elegant Carnegie building with the marble staircase at the far end of Main Street. I didn't miss the old place. I'd always been terrified of it and all who worked there behind giant counters. At best I'd run in and point to Mike Mulligan or The Little Red Lighthouse or The Cat in the Hat and ask one of my siblings to take it out for me. I'd never had a library card. They wanted you to write your name and address to get a library card, and by the time I could do that, I was no longer interested.
But I was back now and as a not-so-gentle mid-fall rain streaked the third floor windows I looked out on an urban area transformed though I wasn't sure if for better or worse. The library was nice, the plaza below me looked pleasant enough, a couple of restored old buildings sat along the street, but it lacked the urban weight I'd come to know, and the tightness of the alleys I'd sprinted through day and night as I'd grown up.
In a couple of months, assuming nothing went wrong, I'd be in the New York City Police Academy, and already that was separating me from my past and the world I knew. My friends had understood the join the Navy decision, they weren't too blind to know I needed to get the hell out of here. They felt even better about that when I'd come back for visits and describe all the places I'd gotten high; from Amsterdam to Istanbul. But this cop thing was different. Every day I was barraged with "why you want to be a narc?" questions and "so you're gonna be a storm trooper" statements and the inevitable "you know they're gonna expect you to bust people for all the shit you've done your whole life."
So I'd chosen to hide. I'd taken the paramedic certification I'd gotten in the Navy and picked up a job on the ambulances that worked out of the New Rochelle Hospital ER. And if I was working at night, like I was tonight, I'd kill the day in places my friends would never find me, like here, hidden among the obscurity of the local history collection. Dougie, who somehow had a job here and who, though he called me "The Pig in Waiting," seemed vaguely sympathetic, had tapped into my curiosity by piling old maps of the city and the sound on this table and asking if I'd sort them for him by category and time period. Empty day after empty day I kept coming back and pouring over these ancient documents as summer became autumn and autumn marched toward winter.
In the earliest maps the coastline was a bizarre mix of wrongly assumed shapes and all the words were in French and what was now North Avenue was simply called "La Ligne Moyenne." The Middle Line, separating this Huguenot farmer's fields from that Huguenot farmer's fields. I'd inhale the slightly damp scent of long-stored paper and watch progress intrude. The road from New York to Boston, the clearly defined harbors with accurate depth soundings and a clear understanding of the tides, the properties being sub-divided and subdivided again. Then the railroad clattering east on maps now wholly English, and lots devoted to schools and more and more streets spreading from where the station sat close by the original church. For a hundred years farms vanished steadily on revision after revision, replaced by blocks and blocks of houses, and even "municipal improvements," parks, more schools, rail yards, reservoirs. One giant drawing on engineer's vellum still satiny to the touch showed in dazzling detail the tracks where steam engines from Boston were swapped for electrics bound for Grand Central in 1908.
By now I had reached the first maps to bear the logos of gasoline companies and grocery chains. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine trolleys clanging up the Franklin Avenue hill, the gentlest slope that was still the bus route down to the waterfront. I considered a community so linked to walking that the A&P map showed six stores across the three miles of Main Street. It was long ago but no longer incomprehensible. Most of the buildings from these maps, even some of the blue-stone sidewalks and granite curbs, were still out there on this rainy morning. The tiny rural settlement of odd foreigners had already changed over its first quarter millennia into a crowded suburb barely distinguishable from the vast city that had spread to its doorstep.
A gust of wind splashed a rainburst on the glass and I began counting the days til the January third swear-in. In a little over two months I'd be transformed too. It had already been eight weeks since my last joint. I hadn't smoked a cigarette in a month and was back up to swimming two hours almost every day over at the high school pool. For a dozen weeks I'd been a dependable medical professional. I traced what I guessed the path of I-95 would be on a 1927 Socony-Mobilgas map, looking at all the streets lost to 1960s progress, and thought of why I was doing all this.
Yes, I was switching sides, I supposed, but I wasn't seeing it that way. I wasn't a thug joining the FBI, everything was grayer than that. I thought of New York cops as heroes people liked to have around. I thought of myself as a wandering survivor, not a juvenile delinquent. If the cops could forgive the juvenile record why couldn't the friends understand the adult target? To me I was simply choosing to keep playing in the streets, as I always had, but finding a way to get paid for it and to do it without risking ending up in jail.
Dougie appeared next to me holding out coffee and donuts. He sat down and I tossed the map and the vanished streets north of the railroad tracks onto my 1920s pile. "Thanks," I said. "I figured I'd help get you onto the pig diet," he answered. I laughed. He smiled.

copyright Ira David Socol, 2005-2010

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