24 October 2009

How I Became Bourgeois In The Storm

Today I took one of the strangest walks I've ever had. It wasn't particularly long, distance-wise--at least, not in the scheme of walks I've taken throughout my life. But in terms of time, it was one of the longest walks I've taken in years.

Perhaps it seemed so because there was no moon tonight. Rather, rain fell throughout the night, sometimes torrentially, other times just barely more than a drizzle. (One thing that hasn't changed: I am still the sort of person who prefers a drizzle in Paris to a storm on Long Island.) When rain cascaded from the sky, I ducked for cover in two coffee shops, a Rite Aid and a Brazilian gift shop. And I also spent some time in a Home Depot store, where I bought some material for a small (at least, I expect it to be) project.

Anyway...Even though I walked streets along which I sometimes shop and through which I pass when I ride my bike to work (which, of course, I haven't done since June), I felt--for a moment, anyway--that I was taking a tour of my past, even though that was not my intention.

That feeling came to me after I turned the corner of 46th Street at 34th Avenue just after crossing Northern Boulevard. That block of 46th Street is lined with row houses that have pitched roofs in a sort of Tudor style. Interestingly, they are more vivid on a night like tonight than they are under a moonlit sky: Their shape does not lend itself to silhouettes. Nor does the light that fills, but never seems to escape from, the windows of those houses: It makes the lines of those windows and roofs all the more stark in the darkness.

In other words, you know that there are people inside those houses. But you never see them, much less the lives they lead.

Somehow, though, I imagine those lives to be in symmetry with the sharp lines of those houses reflected in the rain-slicked street. Although the street was quiet--almost eerily so for an urban neighborhood--I could almost hear, inside of me, conversations that did nothing to disturb the instrumental music--all muted strings, no human voices--playing in the background, possibly on one of the "beautiful music" stations on the radio.

Less than a mile, but about four decades, from that street lived my great-aunt and uncle. When I was a kid, we used to go there every once in a while. My brothers and I liked it because his house was near LaGuardia Airport, and sometimes Uncle Jim would take us to see the planes taking off and landing. Plus, even though his house was actually smaller than the one in which my brothers, Mom and Dad and I were living, it seemed so much more opulent. Cut-glass dishes in shades of cobalt and crimson rested on a dark wooden coffee table that seemed almost Oriental, at least to my eyes at the time; those dishes were filled, though not overflowing, with small hard candies. And we sat on a sofa upholstered with a velvety material (I thought it was real velvet.) in a claret hue.

My great-uncle Jim, who had been a prizefighter in his youth, went into business and eventually bought that house we were visiting. Of course, I didn't know the word bourgeois in those days, and when I did learn it, the context in which I learned it gave it a negative connotation. However, I would realize much later that it fit that house, and the lives he and my great-aunt Minnie were living in it, perfectly.

Also much later, I would understand that their house (He always said it, and everything else, belonged to both of them.) and the lives they were living in it were a refuge from, and a buffer against, the storms that were never far away--from their lives, or anyone else's. He had grown up poor and had fought in boxing rings and on battle fields. By the time I knew him, he had renounced both. From what I heard, my great-aunt was behind that: She belonged to a church, I forget which, that espoused pacifism.

Back in those days, the Vietnam War was raging and, in part as a response to it, young people all over the nation protested violently. It was also during that time when the months from June through September came to be known as "riot season": Many years later, I would realize just how close my family and I came, on at least a couple of occasions, to the confrontations when we were on our way to or from that house, or other places.

Tonight I got caught in another kind of storm. My waterproof anorak kept me dry above my waist. But even as my feet were soaked, I walked with the knowledge that I was as secure as anyone who was inside one of those houses. You need to be at home in order to feel that way. Somehow I understood that back at Uncle Jim's and Aunt Minnie's house in Jackson Heights all those years ago.

Now I am, finally.

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