|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Get That Kid Outta Here ... I
By Lee Murphy
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2009 Lee Murphy
All right reserved.
What do people think about-if they think at all-when they're on their daily commute?
The wife, or husband? The kids? The boss? The future?
Trains today are like strip-malls on wheels. They're ubiquitous and not all that attractive. And crowded. Something to get away from as soon as the doors open at your station.
"Last stop, Grand Central. Please take your belongings with you and have a good day."
Actually, this part of the day and the trip might have been more pleasant if our conductor had asked that one witless cellphone user to keep it down and make it short, or better yet, just shut up.
But there was a time when a train was more like a procession of elegant Rolls Royce limos, long on entitlement and romance, and class. Broadway, Hollywood and Buckingham Palace all rolled into one.
You could 'Shuffle Off to Buffalo' with Dick Powell and bride, or take the same 20th Century Limited to Chicago, with your lover, in a drawing room. Eat in elegance on linen, using real silver flatware. Yes, class.
A train could be somber as well, taking hundreds of young men... and a handful of women ... off to war. Or carry a dead man home to rest. Right on this same route that linesa shelf along the east shore of the Hudson River.
Here, in 1865, one such bleak train passed by, and wept more than steamed, as it carried the body of Abraham Lincoln all the way from Washington, where he was assassinated, to Springfield, Illinois, where he was to be buried.
There's this tone poem, or oratorio-words and music-called 'The Lonesome Train', written in the 1940s, which depicts that mournful journey and the more than one million people who lined the tracks in sadness along the way ... as the voice of a conductor called out the grief-filled stops made by the 'seven coaches, painted black'.
And something wonderful happened at every location. Real events and some mischievous fantasies, such as Lincoln not being on that train, but attending services in a poor black church in the deep south, listening to the preacher's sermon about freedom and the end of slavery.
"New York City!"
Then up the Hudson.
Where it's unlikely that the conductor acknowledged,
Spuyten Duyvil. Still, an historic place, being a narrow course of water that empties out into the Hudson River at the northern tip of Manhattan island, where a hapless but brave man on the way to deliver a message to George Washington or some other Revolutionary War figure, drowned attempting to cross the current-swept channel, and as myth would have it, blew his trumpet one last time before sinking below the race-tide surface.
However, that small event is but a footnote to Spuyten Duyvil's truly significant claim to fame: the construction of the Henry Hudson Bridge.
And I helped build it.
The year was 1936. I was four years old. Of untried engineering capacity but with tons of enthusiasm-more than the weight of all the steel that was being craned into position and riveted together. And then there was my need to start a career; to become self-reliant.
'Get that kid outta here! He's gonna get killed!'
But the foreman, working high above along the main rising arch I had climbed onto was wrong. I wasn't killed.
And I was no more (or less) a kid then, than I am now.
In fact, I supervised three major projects at that time. The Bridge to begin with. Second, the relocation of the channel just to its east, which included the dynamiting away and disappearance of a section of land shaped like a llama's udder on the Riverdale or north side of the cut, and finally, the creation of a new park using landfill that was dumped into what had been the sharp arc of the old twisty waterway on the south or Manhattan side of the stream. All in all, it was quite a busy period. But I took it in stride. Told how proud I was of all this work, my mother chirped,
'You're a regular deLesseps, aren't you?'
In fact, it would be difficult to later remain so much the master of my destiny as I was at that moment.
A single personality presiding over one body.
At the same time I was out there helping to direct these civic improvements, my parents were stuck in a mire of their own making, de-constructing as the losses started to mount. Not everything could be blamed on the Great Depression.
I've never known what my father did before the Crash, when he 'lost everything', but I certainly came to understand the result of his financial ruin.
For those who didn't go through it, the Crash and the Depression do not have interchangeable meanings. A crash is a single event that may be devastating, as the economic collapse of 1929 surely was.
Instead, the Depression went on for year after numbing year, and for many Americans, didn't end until the next war arrived with its abundance of wealth-and death.
That meant more than a decade of need and often, using generally accepted criteria, poverty. And sometimes hunger. Harry, that's my father, simply couldn't take it.
His reality sank into a hazy, liquor-soaked half-life of alienation and denial.
Alcoholism became the swamp to which he retreated, a self-delusional safe-space where he hid from the reality of unpaid bills my mother was left to negotiate.
Fights between the two of them became more common ... whenever he came home. So he came home less often. Until Harry didn't come home at all. Primary loss.
For a few years, he lived at the Vanderbilt YMCA on East 47th Street, which was known then as the 'Railroad Y', where train personnel stayed between trips in and out of Grand Central. The New York Central Railroad was long ago replaced by Metro North, but the 'Y' remains. I once pondered the positive therapeutic potential of staying there one night. Sleep in a room he occupied?
Florence, David and I remained where we were and long periods of a tense quiet replaced the noise of war ... if we kids behaved.
If not, then the mother's wrath was ever ready for battle.
I missed my father desperately, because my memories of him, vague and sporadic as they may have been, were of a generally congenial person with little potential for violence, (except for the incident at the Empire State Building) who only once, with at least some justification, raised his voice to me.
I had decided to serenade a trolley car full of people on a trip back to Manhattan from the Bronx Zoo on the Fordham Road/207th Street line, and wouldn't stop, despite repeated requests to do so. Harry was clearly close to the edge, though I didn't then know it.
The song I was one of my early favorites. Pretty, too.
'If you were the only girl in the world ...'
'... and I were the only boy.'
'Please be quiet.'
'... nothing else would matter in the world today.'
'I said, be quiet!'
A man Harry knew had an office that was on the 82nd floor of the Empire State Building at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, and once my father took me along for a visit to this person. The day was overcast and warm.
Together, we passed through a revolving door-curious contraption, I thought; almost like a game of some sort-and entered what to my eyes was a huge ornate space divided into evenly proportioned corridors that ran across the entire building, from one block to the next, minus the retail stores that formed a ring around the street level of King Kong's then tallest-in-the-world building. The place was dark; somber it seemed.
We walked toward a sign that had numbers on it, and waited for a set of doors to open. The elevator ride, my first in memory, unnerved me with its mild G-force acceleration.
Harry almost certainly had been here before, since, when we arrived at our destination floor and the elevator doors slid open, he strode directly to an entrance down the hallway to the right, entered, announced himself to the receptionist, and was ushered ... with me tagging along behind ... into a spacious office.
A large desk sat at stage left, diagonally across the right side of the room. On the opposite wall was a couch, and on either side of this were end tables, with a lamp rising from each. The nearer of these two tables also held a clean ashtray, ready for the day's first smoker.
The floor, or at least most of it, was covered by a soft and subdued carpet that was mainly tan in its central area, with rose-shaded borders. Beyond this periphery was highly polished wood that stretched a short distance outward to meet baseboard and cream-colored walls.
Seated at the desk, a kindly-looking man welcomed my father and me, and asked Harry to sit down in a chair that faced the desk. I looked across the room and out the north-facing windows, into ... nothing. No building. No clouds.
What had become of my world, I wondered?
This vista, or non-vista, upset me more than the elevator ride. I must have stared at that scene for some time as my father and his host talked, about what I have no idea. After a while, they paused in their conversation and the man behind the desk asked what I was looking at? I stammered some response or other that probably made no sense, and which apparently motivated Harry to rise from his seat and approach me.
Now why would a four-year old remember this scene in such detail?
Harry put his left hand behind my back and urged me forward to one of the windows, which was open. He lifted me onto the rather deep sill, face down, and slowly pushed me forward, telling me that we were higher than other buildings and that when I saw them, the people on the street far below would look like ants.
All the while I was screaming,
'Put me back! Put me back!'
And the man in whose office this curious drama played itself out, spoke. Calmly.
'Let the boy down, Harry. Let the boy down.'
Down. Was that my father's plan? To let me 'down' ... 82 stories? The visit quickly ended, with me traumatized and sobbing.
I have no idea whether Harry ever returned to that place but I didn't set foot back inside the Empire State Building until I visited a dentist, on the 15th floor, some 40 years later.
At Sunday dinners, when he was present, Harry would pour a small amount of an amber, foam-topped liquid into a small glass and set it in front of me. It was slightly bitter and not at all like my favorite grape juice. Instead it had a tantalizing, forbidden quality.
To this day, I have a vivid sense memory of that taste-of Pabst's Blue Ribbon-though I hardly ever drink beer. Wine is my nectar.
Anyway, this bit of largesse understandably sent Florence, my mother, into a quiet rage, a level of temper she was capable of attaining quite easily-and often.
Only it wasn't always quiet. Or non-violent. Manual discipline was becoming the way of my world.
Was it really worth the sore hand my mother must have suffered when she spanked me. On one such occasion simply because I'd repeatedly blown a schoolyard whistle my aunt, a teacher, had given me, and which created a kind of Keystone Kops confusion at a nearby intersection. The frustrated officer on duty there grabbed me, marched me home a few blocks away, rang the bell, and when Florence came to the door, thrust me forward.
'Is this yours??!!'
Not a capital crime.
An early escapee into the enchanted fantasy forest of A. A. Milne, I didn't understand the pressures she faced, and could not calculate the impact of social and economic decline on her life goals. Only the cost to me. I would break away from the fray by talking to the books I was learning to read. And they talked back to me.
'James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree-took great care of his mother-though he was only three ...'
If my mother's world was spiraling downward at the same rate as my father's, it was for different reasons and with certainly opposite results.
While Harry became lost in his spirit distraction, Florence raised us with dedication ... sternly, although it always seemed to me that my brother was less the butt of her anger than I was.
He was a certified genius (Stanford-Binet-rated at 190+) who apparently enjoyed learning, as I was constantly told I should.
'David could do it, why can't you?!'
Dear brother, so obsessed with his education and also antisocial to the point that, to my knowledge, he never made application to join his fellow Mensa monarchists. Oh, I learned to read some before my school days started, but my heart wasn't really in it. I much preferred puffy white clouds, which are best studied while lying on one's back. Idly.
I toyed with becoming a brilliant dreamer.
My father began to pawn away some of the elements of my parents' earlier affluent marriage. Sterling silver pieces turned up missing. Gold jewelry followed its way out of the house. A diamond pendant and my mother's engagement ring went as well. Loss by proxy.
Perhaps least forgivable for my mother was the time Harry told friends that Florence was ill and he needed cash to pay unexpected hospital and doctor bills.
Her illness was Harry. And the prognosis offered little hope for a cure or even medium-term remission.
Things became so tense and angry, that one day Florence took off her wedding band, and hurled it across the living room, where it disappeared behind the baseboard and fell somewhere into the sub-floor construction. It was never retrieved.
Sometime in the distant future, if it's ever decided to tear down 261 Seaman Avenue, there's a 24-karat gold ring down there behind the baseboard in one of the apartments. I think it was on the second floor front, north side.
But beware, it may be cursed.
No wonder I took every opportunity to get away from all the polluting indoor anger and into the clean, clear, forgiving open air.
Before the responsibilities of school closed the undemanding outside world away from me, was a time of personal expansion. I could do most anything, if it was free. So, we hiked across fields that led to the park which comprised all of Inwood Hill and led from the Manhattan side of the Henry Hudson Bridge, south to Dykman Street.
At the northern end of this park stood a massive tree that legend held was planted by Henry Hudson when the explorer passed this place on his way up river in 1609. Once in the park itself, we hunted arrowheads in the caves that lined the eastern slope of the large hill where real indians once lived ... and found some. Or at least convinced ourselves that certain of the rocks we collected had to be relics from the ancient past. Atop the hill, just to the east of the river, was a magnificent view of the Hudson.
Parts of this area seemed less forested and when I asked why that was, I was told that the Episcopal church had once operated a kind of home at the site for hundreds of neglected girls referred to it by city courts.
I was ambivalent about sharing it with girls.
That would change.
My Bridge still stands, though today it looks somehow ungainly, top-heavy. A second level was being added in 1938, but by then I was off the job.
It was much more handsome when I helped build it in 1936.
"Next stop is Marble Hill ..."
Chapter TwoAround the Bend
Metro North railroad's southbound pivot to the east and away from the Hudson River at Spuyten Duyvil probably means little more to most riders than that they're now about 20 minutes distance from Grand Central, but to me it raises the curtain on the earliest days of my longest memories.
We lived at the very top of Manhattan, at the northern end of Seaman Avenue, named after a family that settled the neighborhood in the 1650s, as I recall it. Our residence was just across the street from Columbia University's football stadium, Baker Field. Not the one that's there now, but an earlier, more architecturally elegant version with colonnaded façade and traditional stadium layout.
In the '30s, there were more open spaces than there were apartment buildings in our neighborhood. Early maps define grids that were arranged in the mid 1800s, but not the actual usage of 70 years ago. And though few may be left who know it, there was a farm on Broadway at 215th Street.
I remember running along between two rows of beans, unaware that city kids simply didn't get to do this sort of thing.
The vegetables were neatly aligned in an east/west orientation, clean and green over moist soil. Perhaps I'd take up farming.
Getting dirty in that soil was serious fun.
A small house situated toward the south end of the farm property had clearly gone to seed.
Excerpted from Get That Kid Outta Here ... I by Lee Murphy Copyright © 2009 by Lee Murphy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.