Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Break With The Past

Once, when I was about two and half years old, my sixteen-year-old sister, Barbara, took me out in my stroller. We went down in the elevator, out onto Seventy-seventh Street in Jackson Heights, N.Y., and up to Roosevelt Avenue. There, at the corner, was the stairway leading up to the "el," the elevated subway train that ran between Times Square and the end of the line in Flushing. Right by it, further back from the road, was the corner drugstore.

She stopped in front of it, and parked the stroller right by the entrance. She leaned down toward my seat, fussed at length with the straps to secure me, and admonished me not to get out. And there she left me while she went inside to flirt with the soda jerk. When she came out later, I was not there.

After a few minutes I forgot she had told me not to get out of the stroller. Then I remembered her saying, "Don't get out of the stroller." I untied myself, and got out. I walked over to the bottom of the staircase and looked up at the endless, rising corridor of steps. I had seen people disappear up into that hole. But I was small, and they were big. I had trouble putting my foot up onto the first step, but the rest of them were easy. I went all the way to the top, one big riser at a time. I walked straight under the turnstile. I knew nothing about tokens or fares. A lot of people were looking at me. I followed several of them to the left, where we went around to the other side of the landing. There, we all climbed up onto the open platform where the dark angry trains rumbled in and out.

I got on the first train that came along. I didn't know it, but I was on my way to Flushing. Had I been on the other side, I would have been on my way to Times Square.

When the train got to the end of the line I didn't know what to do. I didn't know it was the end of the line. So I waited in my seat. Everyone else got off quickly. The conductor saw me sitting there, asked where mom and dad were, then took me with him to the dispatchers' booth. Other men were there in that room, real men with strong voices and chocolate. The room had no ceiling light, but there were many other smaller lights sparkling and shining behind the dials. More lights sat on the tops of other boxes. The men, I learned, were keeping track of the trains. They always knew where the trains were. More lights were attached in various ways to the mechanical switches, which took some strength to move. And the noise, the noise of voices raised in order to be heard, the squealing of steel on steel as the trains snaked around in the dark and burst out into the light of the station. The men were great, I remember. They fed me chocolate for three hours while I watched them move the gigantic switches up and back so the trains could come and go.

Finally, after many frantic phone calls to and from the police, my parents learned there was a small child out in Flushing.

I was now one of the big people, who came and went as they pleased.

I heard talk about "what could have happened." At three years of age, I didn't know why they were agitated. I had no idea why, days later, they were still telling the story to everyone they met.

Poor sister Babs. Imagine the change in her world when she walked out into the street and found the stroller empty. Imagine her telephone call to mom and dad. I don't remember her punishment, but she left thereafter for New England.

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