The A train's a long ride thru Brooklyn. We're a ways from the mythic express to "Sugar Hill up in Harlem". A subway with an anthem, written by a kid from Pittsburgh. The reality is; you wait. It's a workmen's train. A student teacher's train. A feeder line from deepest Brooklyn into downtown. Brooklyn. Much less Manhattan. Alas, you must take it.
Some wheelmen aren't so subtle with the brakes. There's an art to releasing them as you lay on the power. Time it wrong and it's like a blown shift. The train bites forward. It jumps, you jump. And curse.
My mother told me her uncle would sit by the window of his train on their trips across the country into the great Western mountains and he'd stand a spoon in an empty glass. When the spoon rattled more than he cared for he'd start counting, wait for the next mile marker and then jot down the number.
The next day men would reballast the spot.
My great uncle, grand uncle I suppose, ran a railroad. How odd.
I've seen home movies of him sitting by that very window looking very continental in his black blazer and black shirt, a strange Tuscan cast to this Philadelphian power broker.
He died in 1960. 7 years before I was born. My mother's uncle. The railroad halted operation for three minutes in his honor. I suppose when you invent standard time you get to suspend it.
My mother also remembers as a five year old being told by her great grandmother that as a five year old she remembered meeting Confederate soldiers the family used to hide in the basement coming thru the back door of their Alexandria home and pausing in the kitchen.
1863. My mother tells me this in 1993. Three voices. Three people speak to each other and 130 years pass.
I was walking down the stairs of my best friend's fifth floor walk up when I noticed that the steel framing for the stairs was bare. It had never been covered or painted over. I followed one of the I-beams back for a few feet and upside down in the middle of the span were the letters J&L.
As anyone from Pittsburgh knows that's not J and L, that's J&L. Jones and Laughlin. One of the original industrial pillars of the town and nearly every building in Manhattan under 14 stories ( Lord knows why that number) was framed out with Pgh steel. Almost every one. Now I know this conceptually and I've walked up and down the 5 flights of Etsu's place for over a decade but when I put my mind to it, when I put my hand on it, and then walk out into the New York din and look about me, it's astonishing. I think of row after row of homes hung on the hills of Pittsburgh and the names…..the lists of men and women who came in waves to settle and work there and this is what they made. If I could strip away the walls and the brick and the paint and the doors of all of Manhattan and just see the gridded forest of their work. I sometimes wish for it.
The past compresses, and leaps right into your lap. The riveter who fixed the ceiling of your NY subway stop lived half a mile from your childhood home 100 years ago. The woman who sat for the portrait in the foyer of the second floor galleries of Hartford athenaeum was buried in the earth in 1801 and yet …there's her smile. Those are her eyes. Whitman had it right. Chekov. Shakespeare. Those yet unbidden and unborn, hear us.
I think it's a kind of a mortal sin that I can't remember every Christmas I've ever had. Toss out the first infant four and that's 41 days. 41 memories. Now I can remember 41 books. 41 lines of poetry is a laugh, something done in a day. 41 meals is easy, 41 women not even a question, but Xmas, one of the central rituals of my life I have left lost to busy memory. And they're literally in me, fixed in my brain and its wiring like buried crystals waiting for the water of I-should-give-a-greater-damn. But I didn't. I let them be mortal.
So why do we? Why do we allow the cord to slip from the hand? Why let the loved one walk away? Why not speak out, write it down, remember it unmixed with baser matter?
I can remember things Vronsky did in Anna Karenina more than I can remember all of junior year in college. I go to Gettysburg and walk around and I feel closer to their needs, those of these doomed men than my own the following day. Or the day before.
I went to Trinity College once, not to Dublin where Swift and Beckett and Wilde went but to Hartford. Connecticut. Where not only does time forget, but no one remembers when time ever gave a damn. Birthplace of Colt Arms and the Insurance industry, the Scylla and Charybdis of American progress, this town gives new hope to backers of the Neutron Bomb. Evidence that if we dropped one it wouldn't be so bad. Business would carry on.
My grandfather and great grandfather on my mother's side went to Trinity. I thought I owed it to them both to walk the campus. And a woman I'd loved madly and stupidly had gone as well. Something had to happen in the halls of trees that lead from the gate. And it did. They were, two of whom I had never even met and the girl with her ice blue eyes, all around me. Like the groan of planes you think are in the soundtrack to a play you're watching but are simply planes flying over the theater. Or music scored in the film next door. You follow, it's lovely, but it's not your life.
But anyone who thinks life has a soundtrack you get to choose is truly lost. To history.
So maybe that's it…..I try not to try and remember because to me it's like always being your own DJ, always using the I-pod in the car, like you have any idea that you know what you really need to hear.