The calendar and temperature suggest otherwise, but my spring begins when the first flock of robins descend on the tree outside my dining room window. They arrive in large numbers to retrieve the red berries that just a week ago were encased in ice.
The Philodendron on the north facing windowsill I curated all winter also sense a change – their leaves display an aliveness that short winter days and the dryness of furnace heat had stifled.
The earth emits a musky odor as plants and creatures stir underneath pushing up toward the light. Leaves begin to take flight in the March wind uncovering new growth throughout my yard.
Feeling distressed by troubling events, I went searching for solace in beauty.
Sometimes such a quest takes me no further than my backyard, other times an excursion is the best remedy. This time I headed off to the Met museum in NYC. Upon entering there was a cursory inspection of my handbag. My immediate reaction was how easy it would be for someone bent on wreaking havoc among the antiquities to have done so. However, I did not let this thought dampen my enthusiasm for the beautiful objects I expected to see.
These days when I venture into Manhattan, I am more inclined to take the train than drive. I no longer relish the challenge of navigating through dense traffic or deciphering a forest of parking rules. Is this because I am older and wiser? I am unsure. I notice other changes in my big city behavior and perceptions.
For example, the younger me would never have dared to approach a very handsome young man on the train platform asking him to pull up his pants. I explain to him that exposed underwear takes away from his good looks. Surprise, surprise – he appears chastened and even thanks me for reminding him about it.
The Plaza was in El Barrio but not really of it. Tenements had been demolished to make way for the high rise coop development drawing mostly middle income families looking for modest charges and modern amenities. A Head Start program and nursery school along with modern supermarket, bank and stores were important. Crisscrossing walkways bordered by trees, shrubs and grass suggested suburban living. The fact that Central Park was a short walk away was a bonus. Names like Quinn, Washington, Chen, Shapiro, Brennan, Jackson, Glassman and Horan appeared on lobby mailboxes. It was a New Age. It was the Sixties.
Warm summer nights brought tenants out to sit on benches or under the arbor. Older kids hung out; boys played basketball. Children rode bikes nearby or played in the mushroom shaped sprinkler under lights. There was no need to trek up to Orchard Beach in the Bronx or out to Coney Island. Mothers enjoyed casual conversation with gin and lemonade. It had the atmosphere of a small town plunked down in the city. And like a small town, there were memorable personalities including several in my building.
There was blue –eyed Bernie, as I came to think of him, who lived with his mother. Our apartment doors were very close at a right angle. He was not unfriendly and would speak if spoken to first. I saw him going to or coming from work, neatly dressed, wearing a tie, balding probably in his fifties. I seldom glimpsed his mother. Then one night something happened. Usually no sounds except classical music. This time I heard cursing and yelling. His mother was crying and pleading “no, no, please!” as he ejected her from the apartment. She stood under the lights in her pale thin nightgown, barefoot and weeping. A patrolling security guard took her arm and guided her to the office.
Over the next several weeks, Bernie’s behavior became increasingly erratic. He stopped going to work, came in and out frequently slamming his door and muttering. His blue eyes reflected anger. Into the elevator and down, only to return several minutes later, repeated many times. And he smelled. His apartment smelled out into the hall. Imagine the worst public lavatory you have encountered, then double it. Complaints to the management office from me and other tenants were ignored. Did he threaten you they wanted to know? Well, no he hadn’t at least not directly. He left a large glass jug filled with kerosene in the elevator not once but twice.
Fed up and worried, I contacted the Mayor’s office. My third call yielded a lot of cops and a battering ram. He refused to open the door and verbally threatened them. I guess that was probable cause for they bashed in his door. Blue-eyed Bernie was put in a strait jacket and taken away. According to the hazmat cleanup crew, he had defecated then smeared the walls as well as placing feces in neat piles throughout the apartment. He had also marked the walls with urine in addition to assaulting the upholstery.
I could not believe it when about a month later he returned and behaved as if nothing odd had occurred. The tie was put on and he went back to work. We kept on with our minimal exchange of “hello” or “good morning.”
The aroma of cooking emanating from down the hall at mealtime was wonderful. An African family of seven, from Nigeria, I believe, lived in a three bedroom apartment, the only one on the floor. The woman, very dark with a petite build, was self-conscious about her English. We communicated enough that one evening she gave me a bowl of the most delicious curried chicken stew. The oldest daughter, eight or nine years of age and spare of frame even for a child, was placed in charge of her brothers and sisters whenever they went out. It was not uncommon to see her wrestling a grocery cart piled with clothes across the quad to the laundry room and back. It was rare to see her playing with the other kids.
The parents had loud protracted arguments at two or three in the morning – loud enough to penetrate my steel door. Next day, the wife would be downcast with an apologetic look on her face. Soon it became apparent she was expecting again.
There was a woman some called the troll – not that she had the distorted features of a folklore troll but because she trolled men. A little plump and tanned, she favored a Pocahontas-like blue headband minus the feather. Around her neck, she wore strands of pastel pop pearls. A man walking by was treated to a smile that communicated much. The other women did not shun her but they did not befriend her either.
The Plaza gossip held that the troll was not enticing men for money She just liked men and sex. I think some of the wives worried that one of their husbands might succumb to her charms but I never heard it actually voiced. There was speculation about whether her husband knew or cared about her hobby.
The one-legged man did not live in the Plaza. He became a fixture sitting on a small tattered square of carpet propped up against the wall of the supermarket every Saturday. Ruddy and brown haired, he sat there from morning until evening beside his blue coffee can and hand lettered Help Me sign, one leg outstretched, the stump of the other exposed to view. Many people put coin and paper in his can. I did so, too.
What a shock I received one afternoon when I pulled into a midtown garage and the one-legged man came out to take my car, moving quite nimbly on two functional legs. I was so dumbfounded, I couldn’t speak. Today, I would have cussed him out for preying on the kindness of the people in El Barrio.
My El Barrio period. It was the Sixties.
Decades have passed yet memories of in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem) remain vivid especially the summers when the unyielding torture of a heatwave caused people and sidewalks to buckle. In the Sixties I was young and new to Manhattan; moving into a new high rise coop development known as the Plaza in Spanish Harlem.
I was thrust into a whole new world. It was an introduction to the music, sounds and food of Puerto Rico. Outside the Plaza, families, many new to the mainland, were crammed into brick tenements replacing third generation Italian-Americans who fled to other boroughs or the suburbs.
The weather was hot and the music was hotter. The rhythms of Salsa I heard drew on its Afro-Cuban roots and gave voice to the struggles of people missing their beautiful island as they struggled to get out of poverty and to find their place in New York.
On the weekend, the tempo of everything picked up. The streets became gathering places to escape hot apartments. People of rich skin tones crowded the sidewalks. Others leaned out windows, barely clothed, resting on towels meant to keep the sill’s grime and grit at bay – men shirtless or tee shirted, women in little more. Large window fans set on high labored to stir the air.
This morning is not the first time I have considered abandoning my plan to climb up Taurus. Driving through the village on the way to the mountain I encounter shattered branches and leaves littering the still wet roadway. The trees have a weary appearance as if beset by a heavy weight as they loom over the road.
Turning into the muddy parking area, I am still waging battle with my resolve to get on with this walk. I am reminded that no one will know if I change my mind. On the other hand, the prospect of challenging myself once again stirs me forward. Being an only child, I became accustomed to creating my own small adventures including forays into the woods.
I look up at the mountain partially obscured by mist and marvel at its steepness. It does not possess the elevation of its Catskill Mountain cousins or the jagged roughness of Adirondack peaks but still daunting . Realizing that I need a lift of accomplishment, I decide to follow my plan, perhaps just to prove to myself that I still can.
The trail begins on what remains of an old mining road. The night’s rainstorm has further gouged meandering channels in the roadbed. There is an oppressive heaviness to the air but thankfully no aggressive bugs dogging me today. Hoping for wild raspberries, I am disappointed to see that the fruit is still sheathed in its prickly protective sheath. However, I surprise several wild turkeys who corral their chicks and ease into the brush. Finally I reach the first leveling off where it opens onto the floor of a mammoth amphitheater created when a major portion of the mountain was blasted off many decades ago. Before I can catch my breath, the trail picks up the climb once again heading up along the rim where jagged fragments of iron piping jut out from the rocks. It soon veers sharply, a rerouting charted some years ago after two hikers descending after dusk, plunged into the rocks below.
So far, so good. No trips, no slides on the slick boulders. Just a good workout. I am thoroughly damp, part mist, part sweat. I always enjoy stopping by an outcropping which is about one-third of the way to the top. It overlooks the village far below. Today it looks enchanted reminding me of a misty apparition from a fairy tale.
The higher I go more moisture waves come at me and then drift away, teasing like a fickle lover. In my mouth, it seems to have a sweetness. There is a stillness. The only sound is my footfalls and heavy breathing. Usually I would hear birds particularly the shrieking crows or I might espy a red tail hawk high in a tree. Even the usually industrious chipmunks and squirrels are taking a break.
I know I have reached the top when the last dense group of trees gives way to domed boulders emerging from the earth in a manner resembling massive hardened grey pillows. The river cannot be seen. What was a mist has become a churning fog. Out of the fog, the nearby legendary Storm King Mountain reveals its face for a moment and then vanishes like a bloated ghost. I hear the muted rumble of a train with its muffled horn receding. Stunted trees and bushes encircle the summit, a testament to the bruising winds that frequently swoop and swirl around them. Even in the denseness I can make out yellowish lichen eking out of the crevices.
My muscles relax; my breathing settles into normal rhythm. The air is cool with no hint of chill. I am treated to a potpourri of scents – earth, woodland and perhaps wildflowers.
I feel calm. I am queen of the mountain. I am blessed.