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.
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?”
* * *
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.