A Beautiful Day in My Neighborhood: Then & Now

You can take the guy out of the neighborhood but you can’t take the neighborhood out of the guy.

–Frankie Valli

[My first apartment house in NYC]

It was a spectacular day in my old neighborhood. A mild May day, breezy and comfortable with the sun splashing the sidewalks with a warm glow. I decided to take a short walk and check things out…

I was a new resident in a great building on the Upper West Side. I came to the City to teach again after an 18-month hiatus from the classroom. A difficult divorce behind me, I was determined to make the most of what the City had to offer. I stood on the corner of W. 92nd Street and gazed at my new home. My mind was overflowing with plans, ideas and questions. I stood for a long time looking at the front entrance. How will this turn out? I thought. How long will I be here? Will I meet someone soon? I felt I was on the cusp of something very different from what I was used to. City living is not for everyone, but I didn’t see myself being overwhelmed by it all. I was ready. Little did I know…

I walked up the street and turned left, downtown, on Columbus Avenue. The crowds, the crates of bottled water and delivery guys at Trader Joe’s blocked my way. This was new since the days I lived here. I reached the corner of W. 92nd St. There was a young man standing and staring at the building across the street. He needed a beard trim and perhaps a new haircut. He was mumbling to himself. As I passed him he crossed the street and entered the apartment house. I snapped a photo with my iPhone. That was my old place, I thought. Such memories of my two years there. And the rent was more than reasonable…$450/mo. for a studio on the 26th floor. How I came to live here is the stuff of another blog.

I met my wife shortly after arriving in the City. I barely had time to settle in. She lived on W. 93rd. Take all the five boroughs and the millions of residents…what an extraordinary coincidence. We used to be somewhat beleaguered by the nighttime basketball playing in the next door school yard. And the car alarms…well forget it. I once walked the entire block in an effort to silence a particularly persistent car horn. I clutched a raw egg in my right pocket. I was going to ‘do’ his windshield. Just as I got to the car, just as my grip on the egg firmed and i began to pull it from my pocket, a police car from the 24th Precinct pulled up. New York’s finest was there to silence the alarm…much to relief of several hundred residents.

I walked west on 91st. About halfway to Amsterdam Avenue I passed the same young man I had seen earlier. His hand was in his right pocket of his jacket. He looked nervous. I decided to lean against the rails of an apartment building. I looked up at the old place I had called home. I counted three floors from the 29th and two from the left. I saw two figures standing in the window. One person was pointing downtown.

[My apartment was three floors down and one in from the left]

It was a cozy L-shaped studio. I had a nice table from IKEA and an old desk from my family’s house. Early on, I scored a visit from my father, my son Brian and my older brother, Chris. I remember one night when we sat by my window and looked to the south, the view was quite spectacular. Chris, who always noticed things before I did, pointed to the lights in the sky: “Planes approaching JFK or LaGuardia,” he said. I looked and saw a half dozen lights following the Hudson River to the north. He found his spare mattress and prepared for bed. I stared at the slowly approaching lights.

I made it around the block but felt restless. I walked into a Sushi restaurant on the corner of Amsterdam and 93rd. I went in and ordered a mug of Sapporo. It was after my first sip that I noticed the same young man I had seen earlier. He was sitting next to me. I looked at the mirror behind the liquor bottles. I looked into his eyes. They displayed an eagerness…an energy that was unusual. Should I say something to him? I sat and thought about what I would say. In the end, I watched him close the door behind him as he headed toward 92nd St. What could I possibly say to the young man that I already didn’t know.

[Once my home for over two decades]

Somehow I felt like I knew this young man, as well as I knew myself. Yet I let him walk out of the restaurant. I yelled after him, in my mind:

“My friend,” I would have said aloud. “I have a very strong feeling that a great many experiences are going to happen to you. Some of them will be happy and bring tears of joy and some will be heartbreaking and difficult and bring tears of sadness…but embrace them all, all of them. It’ll be an awesome ride and you only have one ticket…for one ride.

Of Time, Thomas Wolfe & Me

[The Thomas Wolfe House, Asheville, NC. Photo is mine]

“Each of us is all the sums he has not counted; subtract us into the nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas,”…

You, my readers, have no idea how long I’ve waited to use that quote in a blog or short story. Now, I sit in the 9th floor room of the Marriott Renaissance in Asheville, North Carolina. Just steps away from the hotel front door is Thomas Wolfe’s House. I can feel his presence. The quote puts into clarity the feelings I’ve always had about everyone’s shared history and the unbroken continuity of human relationships. I must be careful. I must be wary. Something I say or do, however small, will set in motion a chain of events that may not be apparent for a hundred centuries.

I grew up in Owego, New York, a small town in the south-central part of New York State. I am not ashamed to admit that I’ve had a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that that is not my home anymore. I’ve grown up and I’ve moved away. But something deep inside me tugs away and whispers in my ear: “You want to go home, don’t you?”

“A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.”

The spare, nearly naked choice of words…the sentiment…I’ve felt this too.

Many years ago Bob Dylan wrote these words:

“…she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me

Written by an Italian poet

From the thirteenth century

And every one of them words rang true

And glowed like burning coal

Pouring off of every page

Like it was written in my soul…”

–“Tangled Up in Blue”

That’s the way the writing of Thomas Wolfe strikes me. The man knows me. He understands me. He has seen into my heart and he writes words that are usually just out of the touch of my fingers, on the tip of my tongue or just behind my eyes, or only in my dreams…on the rare midnight hours when I do dream. Dylan, of course, has the same effect. But this post is not about Bob. It’s about how Wolfe’s books reflect my take on life. The titles of his most popular novels are ones I would have chosen.

-Of Time And The River

-You Can’t Go Home Again

-Look Homeword, Angel

[The Angel. The inspiration for Wolfe. Now located on a private plot (not Wolfe’s) in Oakdale Cemetery in Hendersonville, NC. Source: Photo is mine]

I’ve read a fair number of books on the craft of writing and I’ve learned how the story arc is supposed to play out in fiction. The secret to almost all stories is the “Hero’s Journey”. Most, if not all, great tales use the common archetype: The protagonist sets out on a journey, he/she must overcome challenges (conflict)…the ultimate goal? To Go Home. Everyone wants to go home.

[Cover of a new edition. Source: Google search]

Examples abound: Dorothy wants to go back to Kansas, Odysseus wants to return to Penelope in Ithaca and most of the characters in Game of Thrones want to go home, wherever that is. For many years, Owego, NY, was that lodestone. And to some extent, it still is. I was happy growing up in that small river town. The cemetery on the hill. The river. The backyards. The children attending St. Patrick’s playing in the school yard. Standing on the Court Street Bridge and looking down at the Susquehanna River ice floes crash against the abutments. The autumn leaves that covered the Bluestone sidewalks. The smell of the burning leaves, back in the day. The snow piles. The smell of newly mown lawns.

It’s been said many times: “You can’t go home again”. In my late middle age years I went home again, to live. It was an act born of necessity. But, I found the adage true. You really can’t go home again.

But the urge surfaces every so often, when I’m not looking, when I’m not listening. The urge to go home.

In the end, though, where is home for me? I don’t know. Perhaps that’s the root cause of my restlessness…and my loneliness.

My Florida Pastels

Did I ever mention how much I liked pastels. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York I tend to spend more time in the galleries of watercolors and oils by the Dutch Masters and Turner. There’s not a great deal of high art using pastel colors. The exception at the MET is an Cobalt Blue Rhinoceros (Cobalt Blue is a pastel color to me. If any of my readers happen to have a Master’s of Art or is an artist themselves, I’m not in any mood to argue. Don’t ruin a good story with facts.)

But I digress.

When setting up a household in Florida one must, repeat must utilize the pastels in every room and on every wall. The large tricycles are pastel colored as are a few golf carts. The pool lining is blue. Overhead, the sky is often blue. I made attempts to purchase a light blue pair of ear plugs to prevent swimmers ear. I had to settle with a dark blue, much to my dismay.

For my money, Aquamarine is the only color to add to your list. I can often be found sitting in my blue beach chair in our kitchen and sitting quietly admiring the tea kettle (Aquamarine) and our wall clock (Aquamarine). In the interest of Full Disclosure, the clock was purchased at Zabar’s in New York City, a tiny fact I can live with. The only snag in this set up is that I have to get up and move the chair every time Mariam goes into the bedroom or bathroom. But its a small inconvenience. Sometimes I bring my Blog Idea Book (which is brown and can be seen in the photo below).

Outside the wind has picked up. The blue sky has turned pink. I’m told Hurricane Season is just around the corner.

Right now, I’m happy staring at the hands of our Zabars clock. If I get tired of this, I’ll find something useful to occupy my time until dinner is ready.

I’ll go into our lanai and sit in the comfy beige and flowered overstuffed chair and get back to picking the bar code sticker off the blade of my wife’s spackle blade.

[A creative writer at work]

[All (both) photos are mine]

Coal For Christmas

[My regular readers will recognize this story. I republish it every holiday season with a tweak here and there. This story is true and I am passing it down to new readers and my two children. I hope you enjoy it. Have a great and meaningful holiday.]

[Winter scene by Paul Egan. Watercolor]

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my seventy-fourth year.  The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings.  I’m the old one now, the last of the Egans.  I am the carrier of the family history.  When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something, get a name wrong or a date incorrect.  Or, forget the event entirely. This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever my parents lived  during any particular winter.  There is a certain melancholy mood that comes with the wintertime holidays.  The sentiment of A Christmas Carol comes to mind.  It is a time to listen to the winter wind blow, put a log on the fire, pour a little more wine and to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.

It’s time for a Christmas story.  It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago. 

I was raised in the post-war years.  My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good…or Santa would not leave us any brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a boy could hold.  No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing.  But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking.  No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector.  Dad would often make a joke about poor he was as a child.

“I was so poor that I would get roller skates for Christmas but I would have to wait until the next year to get the key,” he would say with a sly smile.  It was a joke of course…wasn’t it?

His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree.  I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s.  In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow ever deeper.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines.  Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words. 

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys, Paul and Jack and two girls, Jane and Nelda comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He rarely broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night—the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes.  There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were five sizes too large, and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  But the room was empty and the coal fire was nearly out. My father managed to find three lumps of fist size coal hidden or forgotten behind the bin. The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the tracks.  A pale moon helped light the way.  The tracks led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard.  But deep within, he knew of his parents’ unconditional love and concern.  He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished and loved.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface.  His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all. A nearly full moon shining off the snow gave the landscape a light that helped him keep on the trail of the four footprints.

In his anxiety my father had forgotten it was Christmas Eve.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see.  He looked down.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter.  The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the eight feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into that field after the hay was cut and the autumn leaves had fallen.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking various-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  They had nearly filled a bucket with the chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.  My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed.  He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Twenty some years after that midnight trip to the coal pit, my family moved to Owego, New York.  I was born two years later, in 1947.

. . .

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me.  Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

[Winter scene by Paul Egan. Watercolor.]

Freed From Fleece

I did something this afternoon that I haven’t done in a long long time. I took off my fleece jacket and walked across a parking lot. Now, I’ve been in countless parking lots in my adult life so I wasn’t shy. Feeling a bit naked, I kept my fleece vest on. Normally I remove my fleece jacket for only certain special occasions like going to bed taking a shower and certain surgical procedures. This time I stripped off the jacket because it was warm weather. Well, maybe not warm as most people would define the term. Perhaps the more appropriate phrase would be mild. But I was happy to finally cross the lot (which was about the size of an Amazon warehouse).

But I digress.

The reason I’m sitting at this very functional desk at the Residence Inn Charleston Riverview and writing this piece is to inform my friends, followers, fans and readers that we are on our way to our new little cottage in Fort Meyers, Florida to spend our first winter snow-free and warm. Normally we’d be visiting our friends in Dorset, England…but things aren’t normal right now are they.

Please be assured that you’re not losing me as your favorite blogger and storyteller. I will continue to report on life from the Deep South as I see it. The future blogs are already germinating, the ideas are already taking shape and my adventures are just beginning.

We are in Charleston, South Caroline at the moment. I just finished a fantastic plate of Blackened Chicken Pasta. Mariam nearly completed her portion of Fried Oysters on a Caesar Salad.

So, stay tuned, my beloved friends and have a very Happy Holiday Season.

[Note: If anyone out there still takes the time and trouble to send a real greeting card made of paper (instead of pushing a button) my address until sometime in April is:

Patrick Egan

Siesta Bay Resort

19333 Summerlin Road.

319 Cuarto

Fort Meyers, FL 33908

Christmas by the Pool

Cardiologists and others (who live on Long Island) have said that shoveling snow can be beneficial to living a healthy life. People over 55 however should limit their shovel time to a reasonable level. For me that time limit is roughly 43 seconds. Over the years I’ve moved a lot of snow from the walkway and the access to the garage. There were times when the drifts got so large I feared that I would end up like The Little Match Girl instead of the beautiful Nancy Kerrigan or the alluring Tanya Harding. Since I have very little of importance to say to anyone and my wife loves to read cozy mysteries, I was afraid I’d be forgotten until 3:30 am and Mariam would wake up and find my side of the bed empty.

“Oh, he must be having such fun he wants to play in the snow until dawn.” Meanwhile, hours earlier (after the last interesting story on CNN} I would have turned into a lump of gray flesh with a plaid coat and L. L. Bean’s rejected gloves that were made out of the thinnest cotton available.

But I digress.

The time has come to throw my fake fur away and trade it in for a straw cowboy hat. We’re finally moving away, away from the Frozen North, away from the land of Nanook for the winter. We bought a little cottage in Florida and I shall be practicing the doggie-paddle in a solar heated pool.

In truth, I can’t wait for a walk in an outdoor mall with the palm trees beautifully decorated with red and green lights, with Bing Crosby crooning over the PA system, while all my friends who haven’t moved south yet are standing and shivering to meet Santa in a Walmart parking lot.

I will, of course, still have issues to deal with but a dose of SPF 45 will take care of that. No more cans of deicer to unfreeze the car door that went solid after the first bag of groceries were put in the kitchen.

I will also have to do certain things if necessary. When they close off half the pool so the old folks can play volleyball, I’ll need to locate a beach chair that has at least some shade, and stretch out to listen to the murmur of the waves of the Gulf of Mexico a mile or so away. There I can also listen to the motor boats from Venezuela taking drugs to Alabama.

It’ll be a winter of warmth and quiet. I’ll better myself too. I will continue to improve my sailing skills, I’ll comb the beaches for shells, learn to play Shuffleboard and Bingo.

If you follow my blogs, don’t worry. They will continue as I learn about alligators and snakes.

Best wishes and stay warm.

Dear Kristin

[Source: Google search]

Your betrothed, Brian has no idea that I’m sending you this note. He is probably at his computer working out his next Bitcoin move. I will be quick with this note because my furlough from Dannemora will begin soon and the mini-van will be picking me up any minute to take me to my part-time job at the pumpkin farm. I hope you received my monthly payment of $3.77 for restitution.

I am just a poor old man about to lose his only son to you. It will be especially difficult to work the old farm without my boy. Now it’s up to me and Old Paint to get the last of the hay cut and stored in what’s left of the barn after the fire. Old Paint is getting on in years and one of these days I’ll have to take him out behind the woodshed and….oh, I can hardly think of it. That will leave Mariam and I to plow and harrow our two acre farm.

I think we’ll move to Kansas.

So, from what Brian tells me, you’re to have a small party to celebrate your blessed union. And it’s only one week away! My how time flies. I feel like it was only yesterday that I took him to the Five and Dime for his first pair of bib overalls. Whatever you two choose to do in the future, don’t let him near silos.

Mini-van is here now so I must be ending this note. He’s my only boy (that I know of) so take care of him.

Love to you both.

Pops

The Little Boy And The Big Canoe: A Memory

[Not my brothers canoe. But you get the point. Source: Google Search]

Canoes were always a part of my boyhood. Our family was definitely zero-octane. It’s all very logical given the fact that our property at 420 Front St., Owego, NY, my childhood home, happened to have the Susquehanna River in our backyard. And, we used the river often. My memories and adventures on those waters often give me solace when I leaf through my Book of Youth. One of our favorite afternoon activities was to collect a few empty mayonnaise jars, a few empty bottles of Coke and perhaps even a tomato sauce jar, put them in the canoe and head up-river toward Hiawatha Island. We were armed with our trusty Daisy BB guns. After our paddle to the island we would slowly make our way back home. We’d toss the bottles into the river and shoot at them until they shattered and sank to the silty river bottom. The shattered glass is still there sixty-some years later. This lasted until my brother Dan, bought a pellet gun that would blow the jars and bottles to shards with one shot. Who would want to compete with that?

None of this would have happened if my older brother, Chris didn’t obtain and restore a large Old Town canoe. Most average canoes are 16′ long. This was a 19′ long craft. It reminded me of an Indian war canoe or something you’d find at a YMCA summer camp in the Catskills. Somewhere in my photo boxes I have a picture of Chris working on the bow of his canoe. I cannot find this photo so the downloaded featured picture is the best I could find. You get the idea.

I recall an afternoon paddle. It was getting late and I was a tired boy. The boat was large enough for me to lie down with my head beneath the bow seat. There was a tarp. I pulled it over my head and put my ear to the floor board. I listened to the faint flow and gurgle of the water that was an inch from my cheek. I thought of the broken bottles sitting in the mud below me. The BB itself would be long gone in the future. Not so with the glass.

I lifted the tarp and saw the dark outlines of Cemetery Hill and the trees along the river bank. I knew we were close to home.

As we paddled slowly toward our property I thought of the river. I was aware of my geography so that if we left all things alone, we’d drift downstream for days into the mighty Chesapeake Bay…beyond that…the Atlantic Ocean. All the history and importance of the Susquehanna watershed began at the mouth of a moderate sized lake in central New York State, Otsego Lake in Cooperstown.

But we didn’t get to the Bay. We got home in the dark and I was left with only a memory of my evening on the floor of a large canoe.

So, on a recent trip to Owego I went over to the Hickories Park. None of the stores, hotels or the Hiawatha Bridge existed back in the day of that trip. I stand and look out over the choppy waters and think of the glass shards still resting on the river bottom. A great deal of water has flowed past the Hickories where I stood.

It’s all a memory now. Once the water passes me it’s off to the great ocean. It’s a little like life. It flows past and to really understand it and love it, one has to lie still and listen to the sound of flowing water.

Escaping to the South

[Susquehanna River. Source is Mine]

The AMTRAK Car/Sleep train sped south at about 110 mph, the deepening southern landscape getting darker. Despite the intermittent snow, rain and spectacular weather we had survived up north, we then put up with 11 barking hot days in Florida. We have become ‘snow birds’…How could anyone live in such hostility.

The train had no WiFi. All we had was each other and the data on our phones. We were in the last car of a train that was a least 20 miles long. The rocking and rolling and swaying made reading impossible. But at least we had a private bath.

Those that flee the harsh weather, snow to be shoveled and the challenge of winter have to be younger to survive the trip. We were traveling at the speed of sound. This is an exaggeration of course, it had not been broken at all.

[The Future of Florida? Common mode of transportation.]

Nearly There

The purpose of this short but sweet blog is two-fold. The first is to let you know that we are on our way to our house in Fort Meyers, Florida. It was just as the snow was nearly melted at Rainbow Lake when we decided to see what it was that we bought. It’s going to be hot and it’s going to be humid, much like we needed it.

The flowers shown above are from the rear of the parking lot behind Starbucks which is located just beyond the car lot at our Marriott Residence Inn. I thought you’d like to see the colors unlike the small patch of green outside our lot at the Residence in Scranton.

We’re taking the car/train from Lorton, VA to Orlando.

The tree colors are better than snow and patches of green.

The second reason for this blog is to try out my new iPad. This my first blog attempt at this…while the fish bakes.