Even though a geographical site, a city is a microcosm, a setting, for one person’s existence, which is by definition unique, as no one else has had your life. I wanted to pay tribute, but also remember the knocks of this beloved city I call my home, from which even today, tears still beckon when flying back in, especially at night, with “the neon lights visible, so pretty–how can u lose?”- Petula Clark, song, Downtown. (Paraphrased).
It starts in the Bronx, New York, where I was born, in a time when the Baby Boomers were still being born in force, and I was born at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, which is the South Bronx now, on the Grand Concourse, and on the same exact day, a girl who came to be a friend through life, was also born, though we met in high school, and later on, both of us became registered nurses, as second careers. We went to each other’s Sweet 16 parties too. And our mothers were also late life friends, at the local Bronx Mosholu Montefiore Community Center.
This community center was important to many of us. I learned darkroom picture development photography there as a girl, learned proper dance technique, was a 13 year old cheerleader, made fun of, because I am Marsha, and there was a player named Brady on the team…even today, I cannot live down Marcia Brady jokes, Marsha Marsha Marsha. We traveled w the team, as cheerleaders, to points in PA, NJ, not too far, but far enough. I remembered the wonderful Amish Country cooking. But back to NY.
Van Cortlandt Park, the Williamsbridge Oval, Harris Field, City Island, Shorehaven Beach Club, Great Adventure, Radio City Music Hall, w the Rockettes, before movie was played; Fordham Road, Alexander’s, driving mom crazy by hiding in a drawer, in said Alexander’s, thinking it was Hide n Seek time, but it wasn’t. Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor, the Kitchen Sink, a behemoth of a sundae, for a size party of 12, or more…4 movie theaters on Fordham, and we went, and sat for reruns of shows we especially liked, one after another. Later, the golf course at Van Cortlandt would turn out to be a likely place to hide from prying parent eyes, and get it on, yup, in the grass, w friends also doing the same, beside me. Boy, do I have some tales! Ye Olde Mill was also the site of an inappropriate encounter, as we timed the ride, and figured certain sex acts would be finished before the end of said ride. And who can forget the famed 4 wall handball court, which had a lock on the inside?? Hopscotch, tag, the Lake House in the park, watching geese, and raccoons too, bird watching, kissing, running to Woodlawn as a teenager, because no privacy at home to talk to the boyfriend…wanting to grow up! Doing a full 180 degree split, because big dog Princess had pulled me hard, and wow, there went my legs, hither and yon! I cracked up. Splits hurt, but they make you laugh.
And then, the good days of the Bronx were winding down as we watched the encroachment of the poor, coming northbound on the number 4 subway line, and sure enough, it was going to reach Norwood. We were prepared, but also relatively powerless to prevent the onslaught of the crack epidemic, and the bad old 1990’s, when the NYC murder rate skyrocketed. I left again, trying to find a path forward, after school teaching was clearly not working for me, and was a hornet’s nest of differing priorities, of administrators, parents, students and those poor teachers as well. No one was happy in those days.
And as the poor took over the neighborhood, signs of neglect by the government were obvious as well. Overflowing garbage cans, graffiti everywhere, squeegee men who were threatening you if you didn’t want to pay them for a service of cleaning a windshield, that you never asked for. The beggars, the homeless, the burned out hulls of buildings, not being restored, just boarded up, left to rot, and becoming homes for the disenfranchised, even without running water, or electricity within. Just extension cords running from street lamps, to power one or two items…I see Jonathan Larson’s RENT in my mind’s eye, as I evoke this image…and that was in NYC too, Lower East Side.
And then looking for a way to get $, and a new future, I turned to business school, University of Miami, in Florida, but that turned out to be just helpful for other hats to wear, later in life, as a businesswoman…and then, back to the Bronx, traumatized by events in Miami. One year later, entered Nursing School, South Bronx, Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College, w a surprisingly rigorous 3 year program for the RN license, if you managed to survive the virtual incarceration it demanded of you. I was highly motivated however, as the Bronx had lost its hope for me, at that point. I did well, graduated w honors, and secured a job fresh out of school and RN licensure, at North Central Bronx Hospital, which was walking distance from my by now disgusting home. 7am shift, till 3:30pm daily, I was willing to do my service, even though unhappy w living conditions.
The ER was very good but also eye opening for me. I saw the worst of humanity there. Stabbings, gunshot wounds, hit and runs, screams, stench, vermin, contamination, a strong gag reflex, which was unwelcome in such circumstances, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, you name it. Yeah, eye opening all right. I determined to make my last will and testament right then and there, plus my own health care proxy, because I saw what not having these things meant, in real time. I was only 31 years old at the time. It was life changing, seeing all that. Also, life threatening diseases, allergies, accidents, unexpected anything, you saw that life did not depend on your age, only on if you were fortunate or not, just happenstance. Death could come knocking at any time. Whether you were prepared or not. I still hold this maxim, as a life philosophy: that you should live every day as if it were your last. Have no regrets, say what needs saying, do what needs doing…because no one is guaranteed tomorrow.
And then, just a song before I go…because NYC is also a mecca for music, and the arts. I especially love theater, concerts of pop, rock, disco, as an old age genre, museums, art galleries, film festivals, going to the movies, especially art house movies, of high quality, the availability of travel, because I live now in Queens, home to both NY’s major airports, Laguardia and JFK. Many non-stops all over the USA and the world are accessible by online booking. I can take an Uber or a cheap taxi ride to either airport, and use curb side check in quite easily.
And because I had a hard ride in, in the Bronx, till 2011, way too long, I am now very grateful for deliverance. I know what it is to suffer, and as such, with the memories of the trash, the crime, the rats, roaches, mice, the peeling lead paint, filthy walls, ceilings dropping due to leaks, every few months, mildew in the floorboards and ceilings, exposed, possibility of ceiling dropping on your head, never to be the same, elevators out of order, poor foods available in ghettos, leading to likely obesity, smokestack chimneys belching thick black smoke, daily, from burning trash, using #2 and #4 fuel oils, linked to cancer, for heat, which was not on enough, because of broken boilers, and poor residents, and overworked 311 lines, w no teeth to force compliance, freezing apartments, no sprinklers, just wood houses, waiting to burn, which many did, and as time goes on, damage to lungs, irretrievable, even if you escape, you cannot escape everything, because you carry those lungs w you, that smelled too much, and took in too much, when you couldn’t get out. There was soot laden on my artwork, when we moved to Queens, and I thought of my lungs then, that I had already paid too high a price. And my body was also that of a poor girl, who couldn’t make it out, in time, to prevent a hard life, going forward. But still grateful. And they built a water filtration plant too, in the old neighborhood, because of what is now termed economic racism, because alienation of parkland is just the tip of the iceberg. The water filtration plant had an expected mortality rate within a one mile radius of the plant: and we fell squarely in that one mile. And larger numbers for the numbers of lung cases, w expected new diagnoses of asthma and COPD. Yup, they knew, and we were deemed expendable, because we were poor. OK, water filtration needs to be done, but why in the City of NY? Why when there are such numbers of local inhabitants? Much better to put such operations further upstate, in lesser densely populated communities, who wanted the development, not by us, who had to pay w our lives.
Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who is now in the US Congress, represents parts of the Bronx. She knows directly of what I speak. The outrage of putting out people, of disenfranchising them, by the vote, by economics, by housing deterioration, by lack of maintenance, by siting public works projects that are harmful to the surrounding community, all are examples of Mr. Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, before he was disabused of his heartless attitudes towards those less fortunate. In the name of anything holy, that people believe in, we need to be compassionate and enact programs that empower people, to be the best that they can be, so that the American dream doesn’t die in the inner city, wherever it is, and continues to be.
Ironically, I have become the very person that in the past and present cared not a fig about the working class, or those less fortunate. But I remember my past, and my heart became as it is now: concerned for all those left behind. Sharing w they who should have gotten more of the good life as well. That is my legacy, whatever time remains, and I am proud of that! They shall say of me that I did not flinch, even when the truth was hard to tell. Some of my friends have stayed w me, on this life long odyssey, and for that, I will also always be blessed, grateful.