by Mara Buck
My New York. There are flashes of memory as pulsing as the disconnected views from a subway window. Riding the A train to the Cloisters with Duke Ellington in my head and The Brothers Karamazov in my hands. Hanging out in Sheridan Square in the wee hours to snatch the Village Voice hot off the presses to chase down that dream apartment that remains forever out of reach. Bumping into celebrities on the street and having the New York cool to merely wink and say sorry. My eyes watering when I discover after twenty years that the Holbein portrait of Sir Thomas Moore is still in its accustomed humble place behind that door in The Frick and it welcomes me as an old friend who knows my secrets. The lights and the non-lights and the expectation that envelopes and tempts even as it winks that the prize may be more than I had bargained for. My New York.
Not surprisingly the main character in my novel HIGHWAY TO OBLIVION is also in love with the city: “There is nothing more enticing than twilight in New York. The anticipation. The softening of edges. The enfolding with the halos of street lights. It is the feeling of Christmas shopping every day. Feeding off the energy of so many with so many things to do, so many plans. Dinners to cook. Wine to pour. Movies and theater to see. Love songs to sing. Tears to cry. Art to create. The crowds on the M-1 bus thinning out, emerging from the dusk down Fifth Avenue as the lights get brighter. All those possibilities, multiplied by millions. Too early for the muggings and the horrors of the night. This is the youth of the city that never sleeps. It was her favorite time.” Her New York.
We were a working class family on a tight budget, so my first trip to New York City was a thrill. My father drove our mile-weary Chevy down the West Side Highway when the road was still cobbled and the S-turns were viscous. I was young enough to stand up in the back and grip the front seat, squinting out the windshield, overwhelmed by the hugeness of it all. He pointed out a gigantic water tower that serviced much of lower Manhattan and proudly told me, “Your grandfather built that. He walked the high steel.” Long before the Trade Center that water tower loomed a dinosaur, a blue-collar neighbor in the glittering skyline. For years until they tore it down, whenever I drove south on the West Side Highway, it gave me shivers to know that my grandfather built that. His New York.
My desk drawer holds black and white photos of a tall erect man with thick unruly white hair and well-tanned skin. On this land where I now live, my grandfather died in the back room of a farmhouse long decimated, but he built a water tower. From the ruins of that house I rescued a stenciled cardboard sign: Frank Buck, steamfitter, jobbing and contracting. It gives an upper East Side address, with a Butterfield 8 telephone number. Whenever I go to the city, I forget to search for that address, yet I know it is neither forgetfulness nor disinterest, but a longing to preserve whatever fantasy I own about a man I never knew. My birthright is that water tower looming large. My grandfather, his sweat helped build New York and that makes it mine. My New York.
And I sit here, alone in the woods of Maine, while New York, each one sequestered in their grief, is awash with tears. Our New York.
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Author's Note: I wrote this the first week of April, a lifetime ago, when more than 100,000 other Americans still breathed, including George Floyd, before the demise of democracy, before city streets billowed noxious gas and rang with the clash of nightsticks, before the good amongst us were masked, before each day saw further violence and sorrow. Before my city was forever changed. Yet, the huge moon still rises and promises be there when these days are behind us.
Mara Buck writes, paints, and rants in a self-constructed hideaway in the friendly Maine woods with enough food and medications to last the duration. She studied in New York, worked there for years, and loves it passionately. She grieves for her city. Winner of The Raven Prize for non-fiction, The Scottish Arts Club Short Story Prize, two Moon Prizes for women’s writing. Other recent first places include the F. Scott Fitzgerald Poetry Prize, The Binnacle International Prize. Awarded/short-listed by the Faulkner/Wisdom Society, Hackney Awards, Balticon, Confluence, and others, with work in numerous literary magazines and print anthologies. https://www.facebook.com/mara.buck.9 https://twitter.com/mara_buck