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EXCERPT “Flashbacks (an unreliable memoir of the ’60s)”

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1959

It’s spring, and we’re going to New York.

I’m not really that interested in New York. I am not even really sure what New York is, but I don’t really care.

What I am interested in is that I am going to ride on a train!

I love trains. I’ve seen them on television and in picture books, and I want more than anything in the world to ride on one. I watch Captain Kangaroo every morning. I draw them on the backs of the scrap paper my dad brings me from work. I play trains at home, dragging chairs from the dining room and the kitchen, arranging them in lines, filling them with stuffed animals and dolls, and making train noises. Trains are the most wonderful, exciting things I know of in my universe.

If a four-year-old can be said to have an ambition, mine is to ride on a train.

My mother tells me that I have, in fact, already taken train journeys, when I was very, very small, but I only partway believe her. My mother is utterly trustworthy, and I know that babies do nothing but sleep, eat and get burped, but still. How on earth could I forget being on a train?

Union Station is enormous and echo-ey and mostly marble, with hard, long benches. We acquire an elderly man with a sort of pushcart who takes charge of the luggage, and he and I have an intensely interesting discussion about how lucky he is to spend all day at the train station. He compliments me on my spring coat, but inside my head I make a ‘messy face’ because I don’t really like my coat. It is made of some scratchy, nubbly black and white fabric, and its only real advantage is that the buttons are very large, so I can do them up by myself.

My father stops at a kiosk and lets me pick out a chocolate bar to share later. On the train! I am trying very hard not to jump around and scream for pure pleasure, because I have promised to be on my very best behaviour, but it’s getting more difficult as we head towards the platform.

My father understands, I think, because he suggests we walk down to the end together and see the caboose. I can’t help myself, I am doing little hoppy-skippy steps as we go, but he doesn’t tell me to stop, we just weave our way down through the knots of other people waiting to get on the train.

The caboose is much bigger than I expect, and the red is not as bright, but it is still exciting. In combination with the oily smells and the hugeness of the space and the crowds, I feel as though something quite momentous is about to happen. As we walk back, my dad is explaining about dining cars and sleeping berths, which we won’t have because New York is not really that far. Sleeping berths are for when you go on train trips that take days and days, he says. Although I will have to sleep on the train, because we won’t get to New York until tomorrow, only I won’t be in a sleeping berth.

Now, he says, we can go look at the engine. We wave at my mother as we go by, and she waves back, but we don’t stop till we get to the engine. There are men in greasy overalls and rags stuffed in their back pockets, getting in and out of the engine and shouting.

There are also some other kids, with their parents. They are mostly boys. We smile shyly at each other and watch the men working on the train. The dads light cigarettes and grin at each other and at us, all wide-eyed and amazed at how big and almost scary the engine is.

“Kids.” they murmur to each other.

Except this one dad, who scowls and says “Trains, fer crissake. I blame the goddam schools.”

I am a little shocked. Not because of the ‘bad words’. I’m not allowed to say ‘bad words’ (except if I am by myself) and my parents try hard not to use any around me, all of the grownups I know try not to, but I hear them all the same. I know what ‘bad words’ are, I have to, or how else could I avoid using them? But he sounds so angry, and I cannot understand how anyone could be angry in such a magnificent place, surrounded by these wonderful trains and obviously about to actually get to ride on them. How can you not love trains?

My father takes my hand and says that we should go back, since they are now calling out that the train is ready for boarding. When we get back to where my mother has been waiting, we find that she has already managed the stowing of the luggage, with help from the man with the pushcart as well as two other men who feel she must be too frail to manage suitcases by herself.

We say goodbye to the pushcart man. I say thank you, very politely, because that’s what you do when people do nice things for you. My father gives him something, and he goes off, whistling.

The seats we have on the train are arranged like a breakfast nook around a fold-up table. The cloth on them is dark red plush, rather stiff and bristly, and the windows are huge.

I don’t ask to sit beside the window. I know this is part of ‘being good’ – not asking for things. Grownups are allowed to, but not children. When children ask, it is being bratty, and bratty children are not appreciated. But my parents seem aware of my longing and I get the seat with the window facing the same way the train will be going and I will be able to see Everything!

Out the window I can see other trains, and more men in overalls, and I can ignore all the grownups jostling around in the space between the seats and the talking, which seems very loud. Eventually, though, everyone is settled in and it gets very quiet, a bit like church, where everyone is waiting for something important to start, and I completely understand this, because I feel the same way.

There’s noise, and squealing sounds and rumbles, and the train very slowly begins to move.

***

The conductor is coming around.

My father has spread out his work on the fold-up table. He’s grading first-year papers, I think, because in addition to the stack of papers, he has gotten out a red pencil. Only first and second year papers get red pencil. After that, it is blue, except very occasionally, and by dint of listening carefully to my parents’ discussions I have figured out that a third year paper that gets red pencil is a very bad thing.

Every so often, he stops and reads something aloud to my mother, and both of them laugh.

Now that the initial excitement of movement has subsided, and I have watched the telephone poles and the backs of factory buildings whizz by for several minutes, and had a discussion with my father about speed and counting the seconds between one telephone pole and another – a discussion I do not actually comprehend but feel may be quite important – I have decided to stand on my seat and examine the interior of the train.

My mother makes me take my shoes off before I do this, but despite the fact that I am never allowed to stand on seats at home, she doesn’t seem to feel that the rule applies here. So I see exactly when the conductor enters our car, and I watch him as he looks over every ticket, and then punches a tiny, exact hole on it, and moves on.

I tell my father he will need to have the tickets out and ready. He seems glad that I am keeping track and looking out for us, and produces the tickets. My mother is reading but she looks up from her book and smiles at me.

The conductor is from Quebec. He speaks French to us, and my mother and he exchange information on where they are from. He asks me how old I am and seems amazed that I am four.

He lets me punch our tickets. My father helps, holding my hands over the puncher and giving that extra push down so it punches a neat little square just where it ought to. I am now so overwhelmed with joy that I can barely say ‘Merci’, and it is several minutes before I feel capable of speech again.

When I get restless, my father takes me to between the cars, where it is almost outdoors and you can really feel the train rumbling and clacking under your feet, and it is quite hard to stand still because the train sways and rattles. If I stand on my tiptoes, I can look out and see the world rushing past, and the wind blows wisps of hair out from my braids.

There’s not much to do on the train besides look and listen. Although my English is not quite as good as my French, I still understand quite a lot but some words are hard, and I always ask about them, because my father says understanding is important. People are talking a lot, and not always quietly, and they say things that are apparently grownup jokes because then they laugh, very loud, as if they were at home. It’s puzzling, because my parents have taught me to be quieter when you go out to restaurants or church. Trains must be different.

“Daddy, what are beatniks?”

“Oh,” he says, “Beatniks live under the tables in cafes in Greenwich Village.”

“And,” says my mother, who has put away her book and is now doling out sandwiches she brought with us for the trip, “They say ‘Cool, daddy-o’ and snap their fingers instead of clapping.”

I giggle, but I like this. Between bites of cheese sandwich, I try to snap my fingers. It is harder than it looks.

After sandwiches, my mother agrees to read to me. She has brought ‘Le Petit Prince’ which is my favourite. I use my folded-up coat as a pillow and lie down with my head in her lap, and listen to her voice. She likes reading aloud, and makes all the voices sound different, and even the describing parts are exciting. When we get to the part about the king, though, I sit up, and my father puts down the red pencil, and we act out the yawning part for her. My father shakes his finger at me and wiggles his eyebrows furiously, making us laugh.

At some point, I must have fallen asleep, because when I open my eyes, it is night-time, and the allure of the windows is lost. My mother has moved to the other side to sit with my father, who has his arms around her, and they are dozing. One of them has tucked my father’s coat around me, and I snuggle down, breathing in the smell of tobacco and home, and drift off again.

***

In New York, the station is filled with people and very noisy, and I am a little frightened, because we are supposed to meet our friends, Sam and Jackie, and I don’t see how we can find them in this crowd. But we do find them, and Jackie hugs me and asks how I am, but then she is hugging my mother and asking how she is, and I don’t get a chance to answer.

Sam and Jackie have a car because they live in Philadelphia and don’t get to ride the train to New York. The car is far away, but Sam picks me up and carries me, because I am ‘’short stuff’’ and will get tired. I disagree – I can walk quite far – but Sam is nice, and tells me silly jokes, so I don’t mind.

We are staying at a hotel. It is called the Statler-Hilton, and Jackie laughs when she is telling my parents why we all can afford to stay there: it is having something called renovations, and so most of the rooms are not usable. But the fun part is that because they are working on the electricity, everything you touch gives you a little shock.

“It’s the ‘Static-Hilton’,” Sam says.

They are right – whenever you touch anything not made of wood or plastic, a tiny zap nips out at you. All of us spend a lot of time running around the two hotel rooms, testing what is shocky and what is not. It’s very exciting.

We have lunch at the hotel. It’s a restaurant: there are white tablecloths and silverware that has heavy handles. The waiters don’t talk directly to me. They keep looking at my dad when I say what I want to eat. I think maybe my English is not the same as theirs, because it is true that I have to listen very hard to understand them. Some of their words come out differently from the way people say them at home.

I have Clam Chowder. I want the Manhattan kind, because I have never heard of it before, and that’s the kind my father orders, but he says it is not at all like the kind I am used to, and suggests I would be happier with the kind called ‘New England’. We make a deal that I can have a taste of his, and if I like his better he will swap with me.

Swap is a new word for me. It has a good sound, and I murmur it under my breath several times, to fix it in my mind.

My father is right, though. His chowder is tomato-ey and thin, and hardly tastes like clams at all. Mine is nicer, and the waiter brings me extra crackers, too.

At night we go to a restaurant called The Bamboo Hut. The waitresses are very tall ladies dressed in brightly-coloured dresses with trailing sleeves that my mother says are called ‘kimonos’. There are little rooms around the outside part of the restaurant which have sliding doors. When they open the doors to bring food in, I can see people kneeling on the floor around low tables.

I am disappointed that we won’t get to kneel on the floor, but have to sit at an ordinary table. My father says it would probably get uncomfortable, but I think from the sound of his voice that he is secretly a little disappointed, too.

The kimono-ladies have very complicated hairstyles, held up by beautiful hair ornaments with complicated, twisted-wood patterns and tiny bits of faceted metal hanging from the wood, and they catch the light in little sparks. I am fascinated by this, but alarmed when Jackie asks if I would like to do my hair like that, too, because she knows where the ornaments come from.

I give my mother a panicky look, because the hairstyles look uncomfortable, like the way it feels with barrettes. My mother and I have agreed on no more barrettes, because we are united in the understanding of how they hurt your head.

She just laughs and says “Jackie, it’s hard enough doing her braids in the morning,” and that’s that.

On the way back to the hotel, my father promises me I can have another installment of the ongoing story he is telling me. I love my father’s stories in the same way I love my mother reading books to me: his voice is like magic, and I can close my eyes and see all the things he describes.

Sam asks what the story is. When he hears that it is called ‘The Iliad’, he stops and looks at me, skipping backwards out of the store where we stopped to buy bottles of wine and he says,

“You know that kid’s gonna to be a holy terror someday, don’t you?”

“I certainly hope so,” my father says.

***

My mother tells me, in later years, that we went to the Museum of Modern Art the next morning. If we did, it made no impression on me, and I remember nothing about it. What I do remember is walking along the pavement singing ‘Sur Le Pont d’Avignon’ quietly to myself, and looking into the windows of something that is not quite a cafeteria or a sitting-down restaurant, but still has food and is called an ‘Automat’; and I remember eating soft pretzels with mustard on them for lunch.

After that, my mother, Jackie and I go to a very big department store for The Sales. Before we can go in, I have to promise to stay very close to either Jackie or my mother, because at ChristmassanNewYears I got lost at Eaton’s, in the ladies’ department. It was very upsetting, I got quite scared, and I cried at the cashier’s desk till my mother came and found me.

I don’t argue, I just promise. From my side, it seems unfair, because I did not, in fact, wander off – it was my mother, in my view, who disappeared. But she is still a little cross about it, so I say that I will be extra-good about this.

She buys me a new spring coat. It’s blue, which is one of my favourite colours, and it has a velvet collar. The buttons are not too small, and they have tiny pretend diamonds on them, which I am very impressed by.

But in the evening, it gets really exciting. We are going out, not just to dinner, but to cafes, which I remember is where the beatniks are.

My mother has made me a surprise, an outfit that is just like hers and Jackie’s. I have a black skirt, and a black knitted sweater to wear over my white blouse, and even a little black beret – these feel very grown up, and I get to wear my hair loose and out of my braids, just like my mother. We pose, all three of us, for pictures by my father and Sam. Jackie has blonde hair, which shows up really well against her black sweater, but I think my mother is prettiest of all.

We go to a gypsy restaurant. My mother has borscht, which is beet soup, and a plate of dumplings with a sort of gravy over them. She shares the borscht with me, because I love beets, and I have a salad with Russian dressing and some tastes of my father’s bowl of a spicy stew. I am not a picky eater. I am not allowed to be. I have to taste everything on my plate, even when I know I don’t like something, because ‘Tastes Change’. But I am not very interested in food, and I don’t understand how you can spend so much time eating it.

The restaurant has a man with a violin and a big lady who sings. They go around to every table and sing right at you, in a language I don’t understand. When they come to us, I like it, but suddenly I realize that there are tears running down my face and I don’t know, exactly, why. I squish down in my chair and push my face into my mother’s arm beside me, upset and embarrassed: this is not ‘good manners’ for restaurants.

But no one is angry. Maybe I don’t know why I am crying, but everyone else seems to. My mother strokes my hair, and the man with the violin and the lady singer make sighing sounds and say ‘’There, there’’ and pat my arms, as if I have done something good, not stupid.

After that we go to the cafe. It’s dim and smoky and pretty crowded, but even while we are standing just inside the door getting used to the light, people are calling out my parents’ names, and Sam and Jackie’s names. They rearrange chairs for us, and I guess that cafes are like grown up parties, except with tables and waitresses like in restaurants. The talk is all the same: music and books and Civil Rights, which is making sure everyone is treated nicely, and are allowed to go to school. I don’t go to school, but my mother says I will, soon.

I look under the table. No one is there. My father sees me doing this and encourages me to look harder, so after a while, since no one objects, I move out looking carefully under more tables. I ask around, but no one has seen any beatniks.

But it’s nice here. Unlike restaurants, I am free to wander, and everyone seems friendly. Ladies let me sit in their laps, admire my beret and give me sips of cappuccino, impressed that I don’t make faces. I like coffee drinks, although at home mine are more milky-ey and less coffee-ey. Everyone asks my age, and, like the train conductor, seem amazed that I am four already. They ask me to describe the beatniks, so they can let me know if they see any, and when I explain about the finger-snapping I have to show them, although I still haven’t figured out how to make the right noise happen. When I say ‘’Cool, daddy-o’’, they laugh, a lot.

I ask about the drawing that one man is doing in a big sketchbook, and he lets me see, and then he lets me have a page out of the book and lends me a pencil, so that I can draw him a picture. It’s a picture of my friends at home, playing on the swings, and he likes it, he says, because I have put fingers and toes on everyone. I had to count, very carefully, under my breath, to make sure all of them are fives. People only ever have fives.

Back at my table, I have hot chocolate, with some of my mother’s coffee poured in. There are more chairs squished in, as more people want to talk to us, and one of them is Ellis.

Ellis is someone I know, because he came to visit us just after ChristmassanNewYears, and he plays the banjo. Disappointingly, he has no banjo tonight. He’s talking to my dad about something called a visa, but he stops to say hello to me and ask me about my dog, Lapin. Lapin is pink and was made by a friend of my grandmére’s. Lapin is my constant companion and when it is bath day for Lapin, my mother says I am sad and lonely and cannot be appeased with chocolate. When he came to visit us, Ellis was confused as to why a dog would be called ‘Rabbit’, and I had to explain that pink things are rabbit things. He has gotten over this confusion now and only asks if Lapin stayed at home.

“He stayed at the hotel, “ I explain. “Daddy says Lapin doesn’t like crowds, and might get lost.”

We go out into the night, and to another cafe. There are no beatniks under tables here, either, but Ellis does magic tricks for me with a nickel I find on the floor, and an older lady gives me a caramel and shows me how her amber beads can make a napkin stick to it.

It goes on very late. There is some poetry, and then some music, all very casual, and the people who have played already are asking my dad and Ellis if they will play too. They get up and borrow guitars and sing ‘Tom Dooley’ and ‘Good Night Irene’ which I know from listening to records at home.

Then we go back to the hotel. There are more of us than we started with, and so the car is very crowded and I sit on my father’s lap in the front seat.

When we get to the hotel, the doorman says, “I can see someone who’s on her way to bed!”

“Yeah, who?” my father asks and we all go down some stairs, leaving the doorman to be scandalized, to a place that is decorated with pretend palm trees and coloured lights. We get plastic flower necklaces called ‘leis’ and the drinks are served in coconut shells and in hollowed out pineapples. On the stage, there is first a man telling jokes that I don’t understand, and then a line of ladies wearing shimmery grass skirts and dancing what is called a ‘’hula’’.

After that, there is a band and dancing, and once the drinks have come (mine has a lot of fruit in it as well as being served inside a fruit, which is interesting) we take turns getting up to dance. I dance with Sam, who lets me stand on his shoes, and with both my parents, who are good about whirling me around and doing what are called ‘’dips’’. When they dance just as the two of them, they seem perfectly matched, doing everything together, even when they are not looking at each other. I like watching them do this, and I notice other people like to watch them as well. Even other dancers make a little extra space for them.

At some point it is just the five of us, and we are back in the hotel room. I have my pajamas on, and suddenly, Sam and my father burst out of the bathroom, clad only in bath towel skirts and the leis, and they dance around the room, doing the hula. At the end they give me all the plastic leis, and we all fall on the bed, laughing, while Jackie makes drinks.

***

The next day is quieter. We go to a place called ‘’Cloisters’’, which seems mostly like a park, where my father takes pictures of my mother. She is wearing her ‘’Garbo’’ look: she has borrowed a pair of my father’s trousers, and a tie, and has a soft silky blouse on. I don’t what ‘’Garbo’’ means but my mother looks beautiful and exotic and mysterious. I have my new coat on, and Sam and Jackie play hide-and-seek with me. Sam is pretty big and does not hide very well.

My father asks me how I feel about lunch, and I breathe “Automat?” hopefully. He makes a face, and Sam laughs, but everyone agrees that we can, just this once, go to one.

The Automat is odd and exciting, although the food is not very nice, really. There is too much butter on the bread of my sandwich, and the fruit salad is boring, but the excitement of choosing food displayed in tiny glass boxes, and putting coins in to get your choices, that part is enough fun for me to make eating worthwhile.

At this point, the understanding that this trip will have two train journeys is a kind of revelation for me. My parents seem tired and subdued, but I have enough energy for all of us, and make myself useful by pointing out all the interesting things around.

The conductor on this train is not at all friendly, which is sad. I think he would be happier at some other job, since the joy of train travel seems to be lost on him, but I don’t tell him that. On the other hand, for some reason, we get to see much more of the train this time. First there is the bar car, where I have what is called a Shirley Temple and the bartender gives me my own bowl of peanuts. Later on, instead of sandwiches, we do, in fact, go to the dining car, where I share with my father a beef bourguignon that is not anywhere as good as when my mother makes it.

***

There might well be some important, life-changing meaning to this. Certainly, it is an experience few people of my age can lay claim to.

But frankly, what I remember most is the trains.

– Morgan Smith Copyright 2015

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