My Past Is Present

highline wall

One thing I’m constantly reminded of since returning to the US is that I’m older now. I wasn’t when I left.

Maybe it was the way in France, I was surrounded by things that had been around for ages: ancient chateaux, churches, whole villages, the neighbors. It was all new to me, and old to me. The effect was one of time standing still.

Here, I keep coming up against things from my youth and measuring the distance. It’s only natural, right? Sometimes I wonder if the rest of life is just comparing the way things were with the way they’ve changed.

* * *

Last week I went to my uncle Al’s funeral. Albert, one of my mother’s brothers, was a soldier and a mathematician. A colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers, he was buried at West Point with a twelve gun salute. This being the Italian side of my family, lots of warm hugs and greetings were exchanged, but it was overall a solemn affair.

Afterwards, sitting at a table with some of my cousins, all of us in our forties and fifties, the memories were flowing. Jeanie or maybe it was Maria mentioned playing prisoner in the woods behind our grandparents house, and the way we used to chant: “Goin’ on a lion hunt.”

Suddenly we were all ten again. “Goin on a lion hunt” everyone repeated, perfectly on cue.

“Got my gun?” I said, as if in a trance.

“Got my gun,” they repeated.

“And some bullets by my side,” said Joe.

“And some bullets by my side!”

It kind of fizzled out after that. Maybe we were thinking about Uncle Al.

* * *

“How you been?” said Sal.

Eric and I were sitting at the counter of my old favorite pizza place in Williamsburg. The young man who used to ring up the slices now looked halfway between the tough guy he’d been and the old man (his father?) who used to make the pies. The old man was nowhere to be seen.

“You want some wine, with a little ice?” he asked.

I nodded. “I used to come in here a lot,” I finally said.

“I remember.”

We talked about the changes in the neighborhood: hipsters, high-rises and luxury hotels; the gigantic swimming pool at McCarren Park that would finally open this summer after decades of neglect turned it into a massive stationary ghost ship and then a temporary concert venue.

“Where you living these days?”

I said we were upstate, as if my exit from Brooklyn had been a straight line up the Thruway, like many of the inhabitants of our new little town. The true story was too complicated. He asked about my daughter, where she was now, whether she was coming to visit for Easter.

When we’d finished our slices, paid up and said goodbye, Eric asked if I thought the guy really still remembered me.

He did. And he didn’t. In the layers of neighborhood archeology, I was mid to late mesozoic – he knew I was out of the past, he just wasn’t sure which one.

* * *

My brother Michael has a broken ankle – badminton injury. Hard dealing with a cast and crutches in the city, and climbing up two flights of stairs to his apartment. He’s taken some time off from his day job, but still has gigs to play. At least there are taxis everywhere in the East Village these days.

The ankle and the inconvenience are getting him down. But what really hurts is the hallway of the building he’s lived in for over thirty years.

The landlord has covered up the charming early-tenement floor tile with generic brown squares. Replaced the original transom over the front door, that had the building number still faintly visible, with crisp plain glass. The walls now sport fake picture rails and have been painted a Hampton Inn-worthy taupe.

Michael shudders: “It was perfect early 1900’s. Now it’s 1992.” He’s still rent-controlled. Most of the tenants are paying luxury rents, so a generic lobby sheen is in order.

I volunteered as roadie for a gig he and his band were doing. Setting scuffed vintage guitar cases in the long freshly-painted hallway, placing amps and battered thrift shop suitcases in a row to take out to the sidewalk, I remembered doing the same thing countless times back when our band Last Roundup had been heading off to a gig, or recording, or touring. It was weird being in the same place, doing the exact same thing, but time had moved on. Were we ghosts?

When we were in our twenties and thirties, we’d see “old people” around the neighborhood. Haggard and spunky survivors with shopping carts and umbrellas: the old ladies from Stuyvestant Town; Santa Claus man; Allen Ginsberg. Now I see anyone with grey hair on Avenue A and wonder “do I know him/her from back then?”

* * *

highline heading north

Standing under that big late 50’s modern building at the end of the wonderful Highline Park in Manhattan with my friend Scott, I was trying to figure out what it had been before.

“Was it offices?”

“It’s got to be a hotel now, but what was it before?”

“Could it be new?”

“Nah – look at the little bit of asymmetry there, the building materials. Nowadays they wouldn’t do that. I know it was something, one of those buildings you used to look at all the time but never notice. We just never saw it from this perspective before!”

I looked it up – the Standard Hotel was built in 2010.

* * *

At work, Kenji was playing music behind the bar: Cramps, Pop Group, Raincoats. He’s the age I was when this stuff came out. It had revolved in and around my life.

In Love” by The Raincoats came on. There was a lull in beer orders and I stood by the speaker. I knew every fiddle scrape, guitar strum and plaintive lyric so well, it almost hurt. I had to turn away from the customers. Funny how you can spend your adult life standing on stage but being behind a bar feels almost too exposed sometimes.

“You like the music okay?” Kenji asked.

I just nodded.

spotty dog

18 thoughts on “My Past Is Present

  1. Anonymous

    Oh, Amy. I so enjoy your writing. I am glad to know how you both are. It seems you are relatively happy. Please say hello to Eric… (I found him in the Peter Blake tribute pic…Waldo was under the palm tree!). xxxooo. Marti (Jones)(Dixon)

  2. Scott C.

    Very nice writing, Amy. Nice and sad, the way I like it!

    Funerals and pizza. We had a funeral for my Uncle Bob on Tuesday. What a sweet man, a real gentleman. I was asked to do a reading at the church, the largest and most ornate church in my hometown. I have never been on the altar there, and I really wanted to look up and take in the whole magnificent building, but I forgot. Or chickened out. After the burial we all went to Bob’s favorite pizza place in town. He grew up in Rome, NY but lived in New Hampshire, and he used to take a half baked pizza back with him whenever he was in town, and finish baking and eating it when he was home. Apparently they just don’t know how to make a pizza in New Hampshire. Well, the old man who ran the pizza place died about four years ago, and this place now has a new name and new owners. The pizza was pretty good, but just not the same. Nothing to take across state lines, anyway.

  3. Quinn

    Amy, this is the first I’ve read of your blog, and really enjoyed this entry. I must be the same age as you because I also chanted “Got my gun” when you said “Goin on a lion hunt”. When I go back to my old neighborhood I’ll look at people who were as young as I was when I left and think “Do I know their Mom/Dad?”.

    1. amyrigby

      Was it a girl scout thing, Quinn? I’m resisting the temptation to “look it up” ! Just to let it stay a mystery, where it came from. Thanks for reading, and your comment.

  4. Daisy Wake

    i know EXACTLY what you mean. I got the same feeling when I first got back to the UK. Looking around. Finding myself going, “hang on a minute, I’ve been here before.” I have a car here so I really feel grown up. I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to “jump in the car and go”. MD never let me drive the car… I love driving. M3 M25 M27. You know!. I’m still thinking in American but it’s getting less and less. Sometimes I feel like I wasn’t there at all. Must be that “living in the NOW” they talk about. It was so odd driving past Harrods. It seemed so TALL ha ha. They’ve taken the barracks away and put in a “chic” apartment block for the Qatars. Prince Charles doesn’t like it.
    Oh and it’s Jubilee year here all over again. Went to see Vic Goddard with Paul Cook on drums, Adam Ant (who was Phenomenal!! like a young Marc Bolan – in a tiny club in Camden), Mark Stewart (from the Pop Group) played the Scala the other week – bit of a fracarr – he dived in and sorted that out.
    I got my Man some union jack socks from Tescos,

    You should get Eric to take you up to the Boom Boom Room at the top of the Standard Hotel. The elevators are GREAT. I won’t tell you what the boom boom room is like but twilight would be a good time to go. Half an hour is probably enough. The lamb chops in the street level restaurant are fantastic. Check out the floor tiled with pennies…. free apples in the corridor to the bathroom. or there was when i was there…

    1. amyrigby

      Fun reading your UK roundup, Daisy. And nice to picture you driving around (watch those speed cameras!)

      I fully intend to visit the Standard, for some reason, next time I’m over that way. Even just to get an apple, and take in the view.

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