When I was a child, almost every weekend we would visit my grandmother in the Bronx. I hated sitting long hours in the car en route from Long Island but soon forgot all that upon arrival at her massive stone apartment house, racing up the stairs to her spacious 4th floor flat with its wondrous nine bedrooms, a terrace and, my favorite of all, a dumbwaiter in the kitchen. This antiquated appendage to her otherwise early-20th century accommodations lured me into it at every visit until, one summer weekend, I climbed into its dark recesses and waited in wonder until someone would tug at the rope used to raise and lower it from and into the basement where, as was its function, garbage would be transported downward to be consumed by the furnace there and used to heat the building. I remember sitting in the blackness of this, to me at the age of 6 or 7, behemoth, and waiting for what seemed an eternity, but was probably not longer than five or ten minutes, for someone to pull at the cord and send me on my travels through the bowels of the building.
Then, suddenly, it happened and it was over almost as soon as it had begun. The adventure had ended in a pile of stinking garbage, in a dark and gloomy cellar and I was met by the growling voice of a very unfriendly “super” who asked me in a gruff tone made all more onerous by his New York accent: “hey, kid, wadda ya doin’ here?”
This was my first journey into the world of disappointing adventure and, upon returning to the surface, I received a well-deserved but uncompromising scolding for having risked life and limb exploring the architectural wonders of a New York City apartment building as passenger in a dumbwaiter.
I recall, as we left that day, how my grandmother gave me a quarter and told me to spend it on something that made me happy. I kissed her goodbye and we left for the week but every weekend this story, or portions of it, would repeat themselves without the chapter on the dumbwaiter which I had decided had been a bad idea with no future to it and hardly the adventure I had hoped it would have been. I remembered the message from my grandmother to do something that made me happy and the weekly gift of a quarter to finance this pleasure was, in itself, half the joy.
Then, one day, it all came to an end. My grandmother died and the kisses and the quarters, the counsel and the dumbwaiter were never to be again. I remember how I missed her so very much but her tokens at the end of each visit had turned me into an adventurer. She had marked the direction I would take in life and this course was not to be changed.
The long drives from Long Island came to a stop. Their replacement, decades later, would be long-distance trains, planes and many longings. My grandmother had instilled unrest in an already unquiet soul and the adventure of life had taken its first, hesitating steps.
There is the story of the mermaid, a tale told by Hans Christian Andersen, of a sea creature whose fate would be to become foam on the ocean at her death unless she were to discover love and this love were to discover her as well and to accept her for what she was. She enamored herself of a prince whom she had rescued from the seas but he loved another and she was condemned to become the froth on the waves until rescued by the solidarity of her sisters. This was the first myth in this adventure, that of solidarity and caring. My grandmother had never told me the truth in this and, alas, one has to discover through hurt how people forget their humanity and betray their fellow creatures, all condemned to become the froth on the waves in a sea of misuse and hurt.
When I was a young man, the nebulous “they” always told us what to do and that you should do what you love and the rewards would follow. Too late, we all realized this to be a fantasy but we had already made slaves of ourselves, jumping from one promise to the next, replacing one kind of servitude for another kind, all of it ending in tears. We were all mermaids but without the loyalty of brothers and sisters who would defend us and keep us from dissolving into foam on the sea. As I became older, I had forgotten this wisdom only, much later, to be trapped by it again and again and realize the truth as being what your heart tells you in the stillness of you private dreams.
My grandmother would have known this and, as I have thought about her time and again in the 50 years since her death I recall the smiles and the tenderness. Perhaps she was once a mermaid or knew of one or had been saved by one. She was alone for most of her life, having raised nine children and watching them go their separate ways, each an adventurer and each not knowing what happiness really was.
For me, the long-distance trains were to become a comfort. I knew a man once, a French horn player with whom I often went to the local bar for a beer after work. We talked once about our profession as musicians and both resolved to leave the slavery of sitting in orchestras and doing something that seemed, to us, to be useless. He, being a creature of whimsy, then melted his French horn down to become a planter, planted a tree in the bell and, for the rest of his life this now diverted utensil stood in his parlor, the tree growing and growing until his death meant that there was no longer anyone to water the plant and, like him, it also died. His adventure was in knowing what was important to him and to his search for happiness. He lived and died in the service of his tree, perhaps a purpose in life that also has its karmic fascination.
There was the woman who had married a gay man, had a child with him and watched him leave her and his daughter to go west and live with his newfound friend. She became a hated person, incapable of loyalty and her daughter became a caricature of her mother. Her long-distance journey was entered upon with her eyes closed and led to blackness and betrayal. She never saw the trains coming and, for that reason, never could manage to board one that would take her anywhere but back to where she had started. Lying to yourself is no ticket to happiness. Lying to others makes you unimportant to yourself and to them as well.
My grandmother also had a turtle. It was an ugly and filthy beast that spent its days in a fish tank, fed on bits of lettuce she would rescue from the salads she so enjoyed creating. When she died, the turtle continued to live and was sent to the Bronx Zoo where, decades later, it still plied the ways through the underbrush. I doubt anyone ever noticed the beast but, almost 100 years after its birth, it carries the legacy of my grandmother and of the dumbwaiter and of all the children who went through her life, who admired her turtle and wondered what the beastie had thought getting so much attention.
Now, at this somewhat advanced age, having been on many continents and seeing many cultures dissolve themselves in untruth, I look back to this time and wonder how it all could have been different. I think of the people in Pennsylvania, many years ago, and of the strange manner with which they dealt with anything foreign. They were afraid to leave their small town, afraid of anyone unknown who would enter it, and afraid to admit to anyone that they were afraid. There is the story of my attending a pseudo Viennese Ball in that small town. Their idea of Viennese was closer to Vienna, Virginia than to the Vienna in Austria with its tradition, pomp and intrigue. I recall introducing my wife to a particularly despicable person there with whom the universe had had nothing but problems. This person was obese and very stupid so I risked the adventure of introducing her to my German speaking wife with the phrase “sie ist die blöde Küh, die mir viele Probleme gegeben hat”. There was a certain pleasure at being able to tell someone, to their face, that they were a dumb cow and to see them smile at what they thought was a great compliment. I recall my wife looking at me as if I was crazy but, at that moment, I really had my grandmother in mind. She would have loved the adventure in all this. I tell this story often as I also tell the one of the woman with the PhD who once asked me where the country of Croatia was. My reply that it was, more or less, opposite Italy led to her next question which was, “and where, exactly, is Italy?”
With these thoughts we leave the backwoods of Pennsylvania, my grandmother accompanying us all as do all our grandmothers in life. Now, in Spain, I am approaching the age of my grandmother at that time when I risked the challenge of her dumbwaiter and plunged into the blackness of New York City architecture and into its basement and into the unwanted refuse of other’s lives. The “super” has been replaced by a more authoritative but much less understanding society and the “kid” as have all “kids” of this generation, has become a refugee. I guess my grandmother’s wisdom at giving me the quarter each time we left and reminding me to do something with it that made me happy was not at all a false wisdom. She knew what she was telling me. I needed decades to teach myself what that wisdom all meant. Now, at the end of my life I almost presume to understand my grandmother and her ways. I am guessing that the turtle has died or been eaten by some other beast in the passage of these 50 years but that is of no matter. Even the beastie had embarked on his long-distance road into his eternity. We all start that journey early, many without but some, as did I, being introduced to garbage at a tender age.
From time to time I pass through the train station here in Barcelona where the long-distance trains await the eager passengers to Marseilles or Paris or Madrid. The announcement of the “trenes de larga distancia” echoes on my mind as a reminder of the long-distance journey we all take in life. Where it ends is a predetermined eventuality. My grandmother knew that back then. When, someday in the coming years, I meet her again and, perhaps, even speak with her, I will do so knowing the truth in the wisdom she had so wished to give to me when she told me to “do something that made me happy”. Most of us don’t have such grandmothers and dumbwaiters and “supers” yelling at us and the stygian rot of other people’s garbage but most of us also don’t have the quarters at the end or the memories or the adventure put into our hearts at this early age. Someday this long-distance train will reach its destination. When I arrive at that place, I can only hope my grandmother will be there, with a quarter in her hand, telling me to do something with it that will make me happy.