I grew up in a relatively large apartment in Queens, New York; a three-bedroom affair with a brick patio. As a young boy the patio was an expansive addition to living space, indeed a luxury. I returned to the apartment for a visit at age twenty-one, three years after leaving for Montana, and realized it was barely large enough to hold a treadmill.
There were five of us. Three boys in two bedrooms, and two adults that slept in sidled-up twin-beds. Perhaps my mother split the rack to make sure there was a boundary. Three was enough. Or was it symbolic? The door to their bedroom was a louver door that was always open. What was in that gesture? Three immaculate conceptions? Boys don’t touch girls? Or was there more? They certainly weren’t an affectionate couple. It took me many years to understand, many more to accept, and many more yet to cry for her, and him, out of sadness.
I’m not sure when the memory of my father starts or ends. He died young, at fifty-six. I was twenty-one. Yup, I was home for his funeral. I remember most fondly the boat. We didn’t talk much on the boat, but on the boat no words were necessary to share a good time while underway. So I have a boat. I don’t say much underway either. There are things you can’t miss while underway, I learned later in life, and chatter is distracting.
I remember watching him do the Sunday New York Times Crossword Puzzle while I watched television on rainy Sundays. With a pen. Occasionally I happened upon the puzzle laying on top of the stack of Sunday sections on the ottoman, finished, no errors or corrections. I reflected on this years later and realized corrections were not necessary. So I do the Sunday puzzle. Correction. I attempt the Sunday puzzle. My father finished the crossword over a bottle of cheap white burgundy. A half-gallon, actually, drawn on until the puzzle, or he, was done for the day. I prefer a vodka Gibson, or two, stirred, and quit long before the afternoon sun warms my legs as they, in turn, warm the ottoman. Quit the puzzle, that is.
I remember sometimes heading out with my father late on Sunday morning, a vacuum blazing in the background. It was an assignment, thinking back, to get us out of the way. There was no hiding from an angry vacuum in an apartment. He’d round me up and we’d go find the car. Parking in New York - the boroughs - was a bit of a science, a bit of an art, and a necessary evil. We needed a car, but so did everybody else who occupied the hundreds of units in the one-square block, six-story apartment complex. There were only so many spots. When you got home at night, or started your alternate-side-of-the-street parking-spot hunt a couple of days before the weekend, you were hunting. Round and round the block was not frustrating or confusing as a kid, it was life. And as often as not you’d forget where you parked last. So on those Sunday mornings we’d walk around the block hunting. The city was made up of blocks. And we’d hunt together, sometimes for many blocks. I didn’t care. I was out with my dad, just me and him, and the relative silence of the city on a Sunday morning. And he was trying, with every step, to remember where he parked last. Eventually we’d find it and he’d walk around it before we got in, admiring it. Later in life I realized he was checking for dents.
Then we’d work our way out of the spot. In New York you had to know how to get into, and out of, an eleven-foot spot with a twelve-foot car. He’d move one inch forward, cranking the power-steering round-and-round to the left until it whined. Then he’d slip the V-8 monstrosity into reverse and crank the wheel round-and-round to the right in order to gain yet another inch from the curb with the front wheels. And he’d continue delicately slipping back and forth between drive and reverse, twirling the wheel left, then right, with his index finger, clog-dancing with the gas and brake pedals until after five, sometimes ten back-and-forth cha-cha-chas we’d finally slide out onto the street, the V-8 throating its way to the corner, where we’d look back and forth until it was safe to lurch out into the flow and set about our mission.
Upon return we hunted too, of course. If the rear lights of a car on the move up ahead came into view, the throttle roared lest someone curbside jump physically into the space and wave the car behind us forward. There were some awfully cuss-laden outbursts and graphic arm-and-hand gestures exchanged over the years, but that’ll have to wait for another time.
The parking lot at the airport, our Sunday morning destination, was vast and wide-open in those days. And free, if I remember correctly. Eventually only visitor spots or pick-up spots were free, but we were covered. We were visiting. Then we’d walk intently, like travelers, straight for the lounge and seek a window-table for two. At LaGuardia airport the runway ran perfectly for a view of every departing and landing aircraft from the comfort of a low-slung, compact leather chair strategically placed along the huge glass windows of the lounge to nowhere.
I would not know what it was like to actually fly until I was eighteen, on TWA, when my mother bought me a one-way ticket to Montana. Living in New York without a purpose after high school can be the beginning of the end. And I had some cousins who had some friends who had some jobs in Montana, so off I went. It was the most thrilling day of my life to that point. A jet plane to a far-away and exotic destination. I still can’t believe that a large jet aircraft can fly, and I have pilot’s license.
I vividly remember having to wake my father up around eight that morning, or should I say ‘stir him,’ the Sunday mornings between us long gone, and say goodbye. He rolled over and mumbled something like “Oh, yeah, you’re leaving… see ya.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t think I’d last a week. The next time I saw him, he was dead.
As I walked through LaGuardia on that day to catch a flight to the rest of my life I remember looking over at the lounge, exactly as it was when I was a kid, where I sat with my father, the roar of jet planes replacing the roar of a vacuum, watching them land and take off, one after the other, and watching vodka Gibsons land and take off, one after the other, and I craved onions. I used to sit patiently and gaze back and forth between the runway and the onions in his martini glass, waiting for him to offer me one. And he would, eventually. That was his way. And I vividly remember the savory and pungent mix of vinegar, vermouth and salt that bathed my tongue with each and every onion he shared with me at the end of each and every Gibson. It was my time with my father. And love was sharing onions.