His first view of the outside was through the small, fan-shaped window of the basement apartment. He would climb up on the table and spend hours peering through the bars at the legs and feet of people passing by on the sidewalk, his child's mind falling still in contemplation of the ever-changing rhythms and tempos of legs and feet moving across his field of vision. An old woman with thin calves, a kid in sneakers, men in wingtips, women in high heels, the shiny brown shoes of soldiers. If anyone paused he could see detail - straps, eyelets, a worn heel, or cracked leather with the sock showing through - but it was the movement that he liked, the passing parade of color and motion. No thoughts in his head as he stood or knelt at the window, but rather, from the images of motion, a pure impression of purposefulness. Something was going on outside. People were going places. Often, as he turned away from the window, he would muse on dimly sensed concepts of direction, volition, change, and the existence of the unseen. He was six years old, and much of his thinking, especially when he was alone, went on without words, went on beneath the level of language.
The apartment was small and dark, and he was locked inside until that terrific moment each day when his mother came home with her taxicab. He understood about the cab. There were passengers. She picked them up in the street and took them from one place to another (as the people walking outside were going from one place to another), but she herself had no destination. She went where the passengers told her to go, and remained, in a sense, a witness, like himself. The cab started out in front of the apartment in the morning andreturned at night. It appeared to him to be going around in circles.
Usually he would hear her coming down the iron stairs to the door. She was big, and moved slowly, the entire iron structure clanging with each step. Then a moment's silence, the sound of the key opening the locks, and the door would swing open. In the dimness he could see her shift her six-foot-tall, three-hundred-pound body to come through. He could hear the sound of her breathing, a steady, laborious sighing, as she entered the room.
"Claude!" Her voice was clear and musical.
He stepped into her field of vision.
"There you are," she said. "Get me some beer."
He went to the kitchenette, took a quart of Pabst Blue Ribbon out of the refrigerator, pried off the cap, got a glass, and returned to the front room. He placed the beer on the low table in front of the couch and backed off a step. She sat down and put her change maker and a roll of bills next to the beer, along with a folded copy of the newspaper PM from her hip pocket.
"I don't care if the Nazis win," she said. "It couldn't be worse than this." She poured a glass of beer, drank it in one go, and refilled. "He gives me a two dollar ticket! What for? Too far from the curb, he says, the dumb mick. Too far from the curb! Are you kidding? You don't have anything else to do but persecute the working class?" She poured again.
Claude sat down on the floor. He was attentive to her mood, to its direction, in case escape was necessary. Sometimes when he ran around the couch or slipped under her arm she would lose interest. He knew that almost always when she hit him, she held back. He'd seen her open the door once to find a drunk pissing in the small area at the foot of the iron stairs. She'd felled the man with one blow to his chest, methodically kicking his ass and then his head until he lost consciousness, and then pulled him slowly up the stairs by his collar, step by step, to the street. There had been blood on the stairs, red spots on the black.
Now she worked the levers and emptied the change maker, stacking the coins neatly, counting them, and making notes on a scrap of paper. She counted the bills - mostly ones, but with an occasional five – her wide lips moving soundlessly as she tallied up. Finally she would separate the money into two piles, one to take out in the morning and the other to go into the steel box she kept in the top drawer of the bureau in her bedroom.
In the kitchenette she opened another quart of beer, selected a couple of cans, and began preparing his supper. She made noise in the cramped space, banging pots and pans abstractedly, tossing various utensils in the sink without looking. Claude could smell the coils of the hot plate when she turned it on. He sat on a tall stool at the counter and ate what she put before him. (She herself had eaten outside.) She would drink until her eyelids grew heavy, and then go into her bedroom and close the door, not to emerge until morning.
He slept on an army-surplus cot in the back room, which was filled with boxes of old trip cards (to be retained for two years by order of the taxi commissioner), stacks of newspapers, old suitcases, a set of spare tires, boxes of motor oil, a steamer trunk, bookcases, racks of her old clothes, and up against the back wall, half buried under piles of books and sheet music, a small, white console piano with sixty-six keys and a mirror over the keyboard. In this room Claude had found a radio, a small one with a fuzzy green cardboard case about half the size of a loaf of bread, which he had placed on a folding chair beside the head of his cot. He would he with his ear near the speaker, listening to music, or to the voices. When the voices spoke, he often spoke with them, repeating the words and phrases a split second after they came out of the speaker. He could do this well, with speed and accuracy, even when he did not understand what the words meant.
In the morning she let him out, with twenty-five cents, to go to the corner for a quart of milk and two hard rolls. He paused at the top of the stairs. Already, windows were open on the upper floors of the tenements, women with their elbows on the sills, staring at the street, occasionally shouting to each other. Sunlight angled in over the elevated train tracks on Third Avenue to flare off the windshields of parked cars. It was hot, and the sidewalk smelled of city dust.
In the store, Claude waited his turn, watching to see if the storekeeper would use the long pole. Sure enough, someone wanted a box of cornflakes and the old man took the pole, reached up to a shelf near the ceiling, squeezed the grip, and with astonishing gentleness enclosed the box in pincers and extracted it. When he released the grip the box fell directly into his other hand. There was a deftness, a precision, to this almost automatic act that Claude found fascinating. He put the quarter on the counter, received the milk and rolls in a brown paper bag, and began to turn away.
"Tell your mother I'd like to talk to her," the old man said.
Claude nodded and held the bag to his chest. He waited to see if the old man was going to say anything else, but a customer moved between them.
Back in the apartment, he ate and drank and watched his mother clip the change maker to her belt. She wore work pants and a gray shortsleeved shin. With a sigh, she bent her big body and tied her open-toed sandals. "I'll talk to him when I get a chance," she said. "I know what he wants, anyway."
"What does he want?"
"Money." She paused, staring at the floor. Wide-set blue eyes, straight nose, a big chin and mouth. A Slavic face, although her people had been Irish. "It's always money." She got up and left, double locking the door behind her.
Most of the day he spent in the back room at the piano, making sounds and listening to them. He had learned to pick out little melodies - sometimes phrases from the radio, sometimes bits of his own invention - and play them over and over until his fingers got tired. He might play the same four or five notes in sequence for half an hour or longer, as if afraid to stop. The sounds were reassuring to him, their reality strangely soothing, and the repetition enhanced this effect. Occasionally he would simply crash and pound with his hands, forearms, and elbows, sometimes shouting at the top of his lungs into the cacophony, but he would always return to the more interesting business of repeated phrases. He had discovered octaves. He had discovered the key of C, which he played hour after hour, entranced by its symmetry.
In the afternoon he sat on the floor near the radio, hearing the voices but not listening to them, and built castles with a deck of cards. He built a simple maze, trapped a cockroach in a sheet of newspaper, and spilled the insect into the maze. It moved back and forth for an instant, antennae waving, and then scurried up and over one of the cards and disappeared under the cot. Claude gathered up the cards and built another castle.
At dusk he climbed up on the table in the front room and stared out the fan-shaped window, watching the people go by. When his mother came home she told him that, pretty soon, he'd be going to school.
"Is it outside?" he asked, gesturing to the window.
"It's three blocks away," she said. "What do you mean is it outside?"
"That way. Uptown."
He felt a flush of warm excitement, something like what he felt for a moment or two when listening to music on the radio - a sense of things in the offing.
He was to walk Third Avenue for many years, until it became so much a part of him he didn't see it anymore. But at first it was a feast. People moving on the sidewalks, automobiles threading through the columns of the el, trucks rumbling in the striated shadows - he drank it in, his eyes leaping from image to image. He would forget to watch where he was going and stumble into a carton of tomatoes outside a fruit and vegetable shop, or bump into the newspaper rack of a candy store as he raised his eyes to watch a train rush by overhead. If he fell down and scraped an elbow, it shocked him into remembrance that he was indeed there, that he was physically real. But soon after regaining his feet, when he began to see the hubbub around him once more, the power of the world seemed to render him bodiless.
He stopped at the cigar store, stood close to the window, and watched the Negro in his stained apron making cigars. A brown world - the tobacco leaves hanging or laid on the work surface, in hues of tan, cinnamon, coffee, and dark leather. The tin sinks with brown water into which the Negro would deftly dip a cut leaf. His brown hands and pink palms rolling the wet leaf over a stone slab. The polished wooden handles of his knives and clippers. The pate of the Negro's head as he worked, never looking up - a warm, milk-chocolate glow. Dark brown cigars laid out in brown wooden boxes.
He stopped at Weisfeld's Music Store to look at the gleaming trumpets, guitars, and banjos, the dense and mysterious accordions, harmonicas of all sizes, and the slender flutes. Brass, silver, ebony, and mother-of-pearl shone at him through the glass. The door to the shop had a little bell, so that when someone went in or out, Claude could hear it ring - an intimate, icy sound that raised goose bumps on his arms.
P.S. 31 was set far back from the street, behind the tall iron fence and gates, behind the flat concrete expanse of playground. Children of all sizes flowed through the gates to mingle in the schoolyard, their sharp cries bouncing off the brick walls of the neighboring tenements. of hopscotch (girls), off-the-point with a pink rubber ball (boys), jump rope (girls), and running bases (boys) overlapped one another in a sea of constant motion.
Claude stayed close to the wall and made his way to a spot near the main door. He sat with his arms wrapped around his knees and watched the games, the boys pushing one another, the girls clustered in little groups talking intently, looking over their shoulders every now and then. When the bell rang he went directly inside, before the others, and was the first one in his classroom. He sat very still in a back seat, so still that when the teacher entered and went to her desk, she didn't notice him. After a few moments the other children came in, and Claude was relieved. Instinctively, he felt it was safer not to call attention to himself.
He was in third grade before he ever raised his hand. Miss Costigan's class in room 202 was the first in which children had to stay seated, remain quiet, and follow orders. A thin, gray-haired woman who stared at the class through pince-nez, Miss Costigan had, on the first day, smacked one rambunctious boy on the back of the head with a wooden ruler. The boy, well known to Claude as a schoolyard bully, had been shocked into silence and subsequent obedience. The rest of the thirty-odd children in the room followed suit, and she never used the ruler again, except to bring it down on the surface of her desk with a loud crack. Claude admired her, and was afraid of her, and somehow sensed that was what she wanted him, and all the others, to feel. She was distant and seldom looked at anyone directly, preferring instead to aim her remarks at the rear wall.
"What do you wash first, your hands or your face?" she asked one morning.
Claude had been staring out the window, watching a pigeon strut back and forth across the sill, but the novelty of Miss Costigan's question caught his attention. This was not from a workbook, or part of one of the slow and incredibly dull lessons that took up so much class time. Claude recognized the question as being a kind of trick, something like a riddle, and he was surprised at the silence with which it was greeted. After several moments he raised his hand.
"Yes?" Miss Costigan tilted back her head.
"Because then your hands are clean, so you can wash your face with them.”
This was pure mentation, since Claude seldom washed at all, was, in fact, slovenly and far beyond such niceties of personal hygiene. He hated the dark, fusty-smelling shower stall in the back of the apartment.
"Correct." For a split second through her pince-nez, Miss Costigan held him in her gaze. Claude flushed and looked down. He was pleased with himself and hoped she would go on asking trick questions, but she did not. She began the lesson, which he heard with half an ear while returning his attention to the pigeon.
In the schoolyard at recess and lunchtime the boys played war games. Nazis and GIs Capture the spy. Sergeants and privates. They marched in columns, saluted each other, and carried toy guns in their pockets or the belts of their pants. The girls carried books of Victory Stamps and showed them to one another, or brought in balls of tinfoil for the war effort.
"Are you Italian?" an older boy asked him as they waited to play off-the-point.
"I'm American." Claude had black curly hair, brown eyes, and slightly olive skin. He was small for his age, and thin.
"You look Italian. What do you think of Mussolini?"
"Well, okay then," the older boy said. "Let's play."
When it became clear to Claude - from reading the papers and listening to the radio - that the war was almost over he realized with a start that this great historic event might have some bearing on his life. He timed his question. It was always better and safer to talk to her in the early evening when she came in from work, between the first and the second quart. She sometimes paid attention then. In the morning she ignored him or, if he was insistent, had a tendency to snap, or slap.
"You said my father was a soldier," he said.
She continued stacking coins.
"So what's going to happen? Will he come back?"
"He shipped out a long time ago, before you were born," she said. "He could be dead for all I know."
"But I thought -"
"Forget about it. When you were a baby I told you baby stories. If anybody asks, tell them he died in the war."
Claude stood silently for a moment, then moved a step closet "But if he died, wouldn't they have told you?"
She looked up. "They? Who is they? They don't know anything about me. Or you, for that matter. Now shut up with this stuff."
He went into the back room and played scales over and over again, until dinner.
On V-E Day,. late in the afternoon, he went to Lexington Avenue and Eighty-sixth Street--the center of the neighborhood, with a newsstand at every corner to service the crowds pouring in and out of the IRT subway. Five movie theaters, restaurants (Nedicks for hot dogs, Prexy's for hamburgers), coffee shops, cigar stores, Florsheim shoes, beer halls, clothing stores, drugstores, were all brightly lit in the gathering twilight. VICTORY was spelled out on the marquee of the RKO theater in oversized letters. Thousands of people gathered on the sidewalks, spilled out onto the streets where the cabs and trucks moved slowly. A sign outside McCabe's Bar said, "Free Beer for Anyone in Uniform," and a dozen young soldiers stood outside, some of them dancing with girls while others sang accompaniment.
"We're going to Times Square," a soldier said, slipping his arm around the waist of a woman trying to weave her way through with a bag of groceries. "Want to come?"
"No thanks," Claude heard her answer. "But here's a kiss for you." She leaned forward, kissed him full on the mouth to the cheers of the crowd, and broke away. The sailor threw up his arms and turned in place to acknowledge the applause.
Down the street, in the bright light spilling from Loew's Orpheum, a small Salvation Army band played "America the Beautiful" and people threw coins onto a blanket in front of them – a continuous rain of coins glinting in the air. Everywhere people smiled, laughed, slapped each other on the back. Claude noticed an old man sitting on a car fender, tears shining on his cheeks. Somebody's dog had broken loose and ran through the crowd, leash trailing, jumping on its hind legs every now and then.
Dizzied by the excitement, Claude wrapped his arms around a lamppost and moved his head from one side to the other watching the action. An American flag was unfurled from the second-story window of a pool hall. A man with a gray beard halfway down his chest stood on a box in front of a candy store, shouting words Claude could not make out, his arms jerking as if pulled by strings. Horns blared on the street. The subway rumbled underneath.
Claude realized that all these strangers were caught up in something together, that an unseen force had wiped out all differences between them and made them one. They were joined, and as he clung tighter to the lamppost he felt his own tears starting because he felt entirely alone, entirely apart, and knew that nothing could happen to change it.
Copyright 1998 by Frank Conroy