See this story in its original context in The Hometown Issue
I grew up on 82nd Street and Broadway in New York City, two blocks north of Zabar’s, three blocks west of Central Park. When I was little, I called the Museum of Natural History “my” museum, and like all Upper West Side kids, I ran underneath that giant whale for hours on rainy Saturday afternoons.
I’m a second-family child. My father, fifty-eight when I was born, raised his first family in Bedford Village, one of the posher towns in the leafy stronghold of Westchester County. My half-brothers and sisters, a whole generation older than me, learned to read and drive and drink in the suburbs. Twenty minutes south county, in New Rochelle, my mother and her seven Irish-Catholic siblings swam at Wykagyl Country Club and said the Rosary every night with their father. They lived in a big rambling house they couldn’t afford, and when my grandfather couldn’t sell his short stories to the New York papers anymore, they packed up and moved across the country to Hollywood.
From my mother’s bedroom on 82nd Street, I could see the Empire State Building and miles of water towers on rooftops. From the kitchen I could see the park and the dome of the church next door. When I was six, my father died in the apartment. My sisters drove in from Westchester and my brother took the subway uptown from the Village so we could all be together. Our five-room home was filled with family for days.
After my father died, my mother and I started going to Westchester a lot more. Our car was a 1974 red Dodge Dart with a Slant Six engine, a broken gas gauge and a distinct smell of wet dog and fake leather. The dog, Jack, sat in the backseat with my niece Lucy and me, and we sang our way up to Katonah, the small town next to Bedford where my grown sisters lived with their children.
When I was eleven, my older brother told an audience that the word “Katonah” meant dysfunction in a Native American language, and I believed him until I was thirteen. But to me, Katonah felt wholesome and safe. My big sisters ran a bakery on Katonah Avenue called The Bakers Café, where there were pastel silkscreened t-shirts on the walls and warm poppy seed bread and zucchini cake behind the counter. We were allowed limitless free grape sodas from the industrial refrigerator, and I was treated like a VIP by the beautiful young women in the kitchen with flour-dusted hands. In Katonah, Lucy and I learned how to dig for worms and avoid poison ivy, and my nephew Sam, born three days before I was, showed us how to hide in the bushes and avoid enemies from foreign lands and Mars. He and his little brother Gabe would roughhouse and run around playing football barefoot, and their father George would dangle us upside down by our ankles and make his thumb disappear before our eyes.
Thirty minutes away, in the less melodically-named hamlet of Armonk, my mother’s sister Susie lived in an enormous house with her husband, my four giant football-playing cousins, and a threatening-looking boxer. They lived the way I imagined the rest of America lived, or at least the way Americans were supposed to. They had a pool table and a dartboard, a den, all the cable channels, and carpeted floors. My cousins were handsome and loud and funny, and they had beautiful girlfriends who got to spend the night. My cousin Chance tried to start farting contests with me, and taught me how to throw a baseball. Overwhelmed and slightly frightened by the exuberance of the household, I always managed to escape to the safety of my aunt’s waterbed to play with her doll collection, which my mother said she thought was a little creepy. She wasn’t one for dolls.
We rarely spent the night in Westchester for some reason. I think both my mother and I felt more comfortable in our own beds in the city. Car horns have always been more comforting to me than crickets, and there was something reassuring about landing back home on the Upper West Side late at night and finding a parking space right on our block. Around 7 or 8, after an early dinner of burgers in Armonk or Bakers Café sandwiches in Katonah, we’d say our goodbyes, load the dog into the car along with fresh apples or watermelon or poppy seed cake, and drive down the Saw Mill Parkway back to Manhattan.
Sometimes, when my mother was feeling nostalgic and Lucy and I were in an obliging mood, we’d take a detour on the way back to the city and drive by the house in New Rochelle that my mother’s family left behind in 1957. It looked like a mansion to me, a Georgian red brick pile with a big terrace and a gate. There was a basketball hoop on the driveway, which had been added by later owners; my mother’s family sport has always been swimming. We’d get back on the highway after stopping for gas and a bathroom break, and Lucy and I would beg my mother to tell us stories about when she was our age.
Once we’d cleared the toll at Spuyten Duyvil on the northern tip of Manhattan, my favorite part of the drive home began. The West Side Highway curves to the left there, and our car would swoop left and right and down, until we were driving right next to the Hudson. New Jersey glittered on the other side of the river and the George Washington Bridge towered before us, welcoming us home. Back in the city, we’d park the car and walk the dog around the block before going inside for the night. When those burgers and sandwiches hadn’t been enough for us we’d buy bagels, and on special occasions we’d order Chinese food and eat broccoli with garlic sauce, saving the dumplings for breakfast the next morning. Lucy and I would get into our pajamas, sit on my bed with our dolls and invent stories about war and hiding from aliens. Sometimes my bed became a sailboat and sometimes the bathtub was a cellar where we hid from an evil crone. Car alarms screamed and moaned outside and we could hear laughter and yelling fourteen stories below. Before we turned out the lights, we’d take my father’s old binoculars and inspect the city laid out before us, training our eyes on the bright windows of apartments across the way and pedestrians on the street. We were hoping to see murders, and burglaries, and maybe people having sex. But all we saw were other people eating, brushing their hair, smoking and staring out their own windows into their neighbors’ lives. Then my mother would come into my room and Lucy and I would get ourselves under the covers. She would sing to us until we’d both fallen asleep, while competing horns blared below.