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(In My) Solitude — Billie Holiday
I step into the subway car at the elevated Sixty-First Street Woodside Station after standing in the assaulting drizzle of an early morning shower and squeeze my way into a pocket of space to find myself pressed up against a man who's wearing a damp suit and listening to his iPod.
My parents met at a dance. My grandparents met at a dance. The closest I get to being pressed up against a man while music is playing is during rush hour.
I brace myself as the train lurches out of the station. I brace myself for the eight-hour shift that lies before me — eight hours of mindless tedium behind a desk, eight hours to wallow in how utterly single I am, eight hours to daydream about the other life I should be living, the one with romance and travel. The one where I don't sit behind that damned desk.
I eventually get a seat when the crowds push their way off at Queensboro Plaza, sandwiched between an Asian woman reading a newspaper in her native tongue and a Latino whose head keeps bobbing as the conductor mumbles the name of each station.
I open my weekly news magazine and return to an article about Alice Ramsey, the first woman to cross the American landscape by car in 1909. She and her three female passengers took fifty-nine days to drive from Manhattan to San Francisco. Those were daring women ahead of their time. I often daydream about taking a similar journey. I wonder what the roads were like back then. According to the article, the golden age of the road trip was in the fifties, when highways opened up and America experienced a boom in car manufacturing after the war. There is a sidenote with a quote from John Steinbeck: "Every American hungers to move."
We are descended from those who moved, immigrants searching for a better life. The problem is, most of us can't just pack up and leave. We have responsibilities. We have day jobs. We have headaches. My head is too foggy from my early morning rise to fully escape into the magazine, so I stare at the floor. My thoughts have no particular focus until a young couple boards the train at Hunters Point Avenue. They stand together quietly with their elegant arms extending up to the bars overhead. They wear trench coats in conservative navy and beige hues. They balance themselves, holding their coffees and umbrellas. It is obvious they have been together for many moons. They don't wear wedding rings. This is their morning ritual. They are bright and fresh and eager to begin the day together.
No words ever pass between them, but they communicate in the most intimate way I have ever seen in public.
Right in front of everyone on the train, although I'm the only one watching, the woman crosses her leg and places her foot alongside the man's foot, and then he returns the gesture so that his foot is aligned with hers. They look at their feet, a left foot and a right foot, pressed up against each other. They smile in unison and lift their heads slowly until they meet each other's gaze. They linger for a moment in each other's eyes and then look away. I feel like a privileged stalker to have witnessed such a simple expression of love. But my heart sinks. Where is my Monday morning escort to work? My lover man with his coffee and trench coat? My right shoe?
When the train crawls into Grand Central Station, the doors open, and the couple disappears into a sea of heads. I watch their feet walk away together before the doors close, and then I sigh and shut my eyes until the train enters Times Square. The sleepy Latino who's been using my shoulder as a pillow awakens with a jerk and stumbles toward the door. The Asian woman pushes her way ahead of me, and I sulk through the Forty-Second Street station.
As I ascend the escalator, I hear music. The usual African drums and sounds of other street musicians aren't filling the tunnels. Today a violin sings through the station. I recognize the melody but can't recall where I know it from. I rise higher and higher from the depths of the underground. A smile grows on my face. I begin to hum along with the tune as the lyrics reveal themselves to me about climbing mountains, fording streams, and following rainbows until you find your dream.
Julie Andrews. "The Sound of Music."
"Thank you, Granny," I say to myself. "Yes, I'll keep that in mind."
I enter my building and flash my ID at the guard, but he's having a staring contest with his shoes. I make my way to the elevator, where a cluster of people gather silently, waiting for it to arrive. They also have a keen interest in their feet. When the doors open, the employees file one by one into the space, choose a corner or pocket, and adjust their stance in order to maintain a comfortable distance. Once the doors close and the button for each floor has been designated, we stand, we stare, we rise. In silence.
When the elevator reaches my floor, I walk to my cubicle and see that the coworker who sits across from me is engrossed in online news at his computer. I notice he is wearing his cardigan inside out.
"Morning," I mumble, but he doesn't respond. Seriously, it can't be that engrossing, I think to myself.
I automatically turn on my computer and take off my raincoat. The dust I've disturbed on the deserted desk next to mine alerts my allergies, and I sneeze loudly. I wait in expectation for a cordial response. Nothing.
"Bless you," I whisper to the space between us with a pinch of irritation.
My workday begins.
The phone is ringing on my desk at my not-for-profit organization. I glance up from the colorful map of America, the one on the back page of the New York Times with the weather report. I've drawn a line from New York to Seattle using my number-two pencil. I've been staring at the map for hours, days, and weeks, calculating miles, gas prices, and hotel fees. On my lunch hour, I research tourist sites along the route, such as Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park, and list entrance fees.
I've written out two scenarios in columns on a yellow pad: "If I Don't Get Laid Off" and "If I Do Get Laid Off."
"If I Don't Get Laid Off" means I'll have two weeks' vacation to drive across America this summer. It means I won't have much time to even stop at Mount Rushmore — or stop at all, for that matter. Perhaps I will rent a car, leave it in Seattle, and then fly back. But that is pricy.
"If I Do Get Laid Off" means I'll have plenty of time to stop awhile in Yellowstone, but the longer I am on the road, the more hotel fees will add up, and I still have to drive my Toyota back east, which means gas calculations will double.
This is how I have been spending my time in my office, where my supervisor yells at me daily for sending emails she hasn't proofread, as she likes to micromanage the trajectory of ants making a hill.
There are other lists and images posted on the walls of my cubicle that distract me from my work, which I don't have much of these days due to the budgets being diminished. Below numerous postcards featuring images of Audrey Hepburn, my idol, whom I worship when I stand before my closet, wondering what she would wear to work, next to the landscapes of Ireland I have cut out from years of old calendars so that when I look up from my computer, I see green fields, stone walls, cottages, and the sea, there is a list entitled "Things I've Always Wanted to Do."
Things I've Always Wanted to Do Swim naked Learn to play ukulele Drive exceptionally fast Ride in hot air balloon with Sean Connery Wear a dress designed for me Take a cooking class Hang out with Bono in a Dublin pub Drink tea with geisha in Japan Tour all of Canada with Michael Bublé in a hot tub Attend an Oscar ceremony Learn to read music Speak Spanish fluently Swing dance at Graceland in the jungle room Fly around Hogwarts on my broom Find love
I also have a number of Post-it notes with names of the many places I want to visit, including but not limited to Saint Lucia, Barcelona, any chocolate shop in Belgium, Istanbul, and Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America.
My phone is still ringing. I don't recognize the number, but the caller ID shows the name B. Grant, and I know there is a Barbara up in HR. This could be it.
"This is Tara."
"Tara, Barbara Grant. Can you please come up to the eleventh floor?"
I feel the first drop of rain on my face. The anticipated storm has arrived, and I smile as I gently place the receiver back in its cradle.
Barbara directs me into her supervisor's office, where I am met by the head of human resources and the executive director of my department, both of whom are wearing grave expressions.
"I think you know why you are here," the head of HR says as I take a seat and smile at her, half listening, wondering what I am going to pack, whom I will take on the journey, and when I can escape and begin my new life.
I know why I am sitting here. The sky is falling. The budgets were cut, and employees are expendable, just like coffee and staplers. I've been waiting for this moment. I've wanted it. I have spent enough time sitting at my desk, waiting for my life to begin beyond a cubicle. It is time to move. It is time for change.
I noticed last year how we cut back on little things, such as paper and pencil sharpeners, but then the complimentary Starbucks coffee was cut, and chocolate chip cookies suddenly stopped appearing on the table at meetings. That was devastating. Some staff were let go last summer, hence the dusty, deserted desks. That's when I began my backup plan, though outlining America with a number-two pencil didn't occur until about mid-January, when I usually begin to plan my annual trips and vacations for the upcoming year.
"Do you have any questions?" My director is looking at me as I look out the window and see that the sky is clearing.
"When do I begin — I mean leave?" I can't contain my elation. "Two weeks. You seem to be taking the news rather well." The
head of HR is trying to read my face.
"Oh." I smile at her. "Well, I have a lot of things I've always wanted to do."
This is a gift, I say to myself as I skip past Barbara, who peeks up at me from her desk. I am not the first person she has called up to the eleventh floor today. I don't envy her — or the colleagues I find crying at their desks as I return to mine to look again at my Audrey Hepburn postcards, images of Ireland, and map of America sprawled across my desk. I probably would have stayed in this position because it is a job in a field I am passionate about, but I have become stale in this space, wilting like an outdoor plant mistakenly placed indoors and nowhere near a sunbathed window. I am not growing. If they hadn't pushed me off this airplane, I probably wouldn't have jumped, because part of me really likes security. However, if we never take chances, we never get to answer the what-ifs of our lives.CHAPTER 2
New York State of Mind — Billy Joel
My apartment in New York is sandwiched between multitudes of commuter pathways. On one side is the lovely Queens Boulevard, nicknamed the Boulevard of Death due to the high number of pedestrians hit by cars each year. On the other side, the Long Island Railroad rumbles under a tunnel that shakes the foundation of my home. Overhead is the direct path of jets landing at LaGuardia airport every three to five minutes. Then there is the Number Seven subway line, elevated above my street, nicknamed the International Express. It streams its way across the tracks like a needle through Queens neighborhoods, stitching them together like a quilt, with a patch of Colombia here, a pattern of Greece there, and a bit of green in the middle, representing my Irish-Korean neighborhood. I have a few trees on my street — just enough green to remind me that nature does indeed exist.
New York is cluttered with concrete and steel. There are a number of parks, but no matter how deep you escape into a park, a horn or menacing siren will always find you. The billboards, cell phones, and traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, are all distractions. The landscape of New York City is one that I have grown accustomed to. I was born here. I can function in this space. I know its rhythms. I move with it as one moves with a herd of buffalo so as not to get trampled. But these pathways, highways, subways, and motorways are all taking me away from a natural landscape, one that allows me to imagine, reflect, dream, and feed my spirit.
I tend to feel connected to my spirit only when I am in Ireland, where my mother and grandparents were born. There is something mystical about that land. The ghosts of my ancestors walk through those peaceful valleys speckled with purple heather and cluttered only with cattle or sheep causing the occasional road block for the unfortunate tourist. The rhythm of the ocean lapping the Donegal shoreline has the ability to change one's breathing pattern. My breathing in New York City is shallow. I'd rather not deeply inhale exhaust from taxis and delivery trucks.
My name is Tara O'Grady. When I say it out loud in New York City, it is natural to hear one of two responses: "Nice Jewish name!" or "So you're Italian then?" This is indeed a melting pot with a sense of humor, and I am just another ingredient.
My mother has brought me to her homeland every summer since I was an infant. That's where I experienced my first road trip.
"She gets car sick," she explained to my uncle, who kicked a stone into an empty field as he lit his third cigarette with his back to the wind. The journey from Dublin made me lose my morning feed of tea and toast as my uncle tore up the road to Donegal. The roads had a bit of a bend in them back then, before wider and more direct motorways were developed. They wrapped around farms, outlining the patches of a green quilt stitched together by hedges, stone walls, and barbed wire. I couldn't see out the side windows, as I was sandwiched between suitcases and duffel bags, gasping for fresh air as my brother licked his greasy fingers while alternating between salt-and-vinegar chips and Mars bars.
"You're all right, love." My mother rubbed my back as she looked out into damp fields. I couldn't tell if tears or rain fell onto her cheeks.
She too suffered from motion sickness. The boat that took her to America under the November moon made certain she would regret her journey. But since then, she has flown across the Atlantic annually, and together we returned to her mother's arms, arms that crushed me with love.
I knew the country roads like the lines on Granny's face. Even with my eyes closed, I could tell where we were. We now enter Donegal through the Pettigo road, recognized by its bumps and potholes that awaken me from my jet-lagged slumber. But back then, my uncle usually avoided crossing the borders into Northern Ireland, where duffel bags were searched and passports inspected as I stared down the barrel of a soldier's gun. That was in the 1970s, when I noticed bumper stickers on American cars that read, "Free Bobby Sands." I didn't know who the young man was or why he was in a prison near Belfast, but I knew it mattered to the Irish in New York, to Catholics like us.
After we reached the Pettigo road, passed through Donegal Town, and stopped in Mountcharles for more cigarettes, a newspaper, or vanilla ice cream if my tummy could handle it by then, I knew to make a left off the main road where a bathtub filled with rainwater for cattle sat at the edge of a field. I knew to stop at the crossroads where my brother, Tommy, and I walked to buy sweets at Cassidy's. I knew to hold my breath and pray as my uncle sped up at the blind spot at the top of the narrow lane, where if one were to meet a tractor, the tractor would not end up in the ditch. I knew to make a final left down the gravel-covered road that led to my grandparents' farm, which my mother left in the autumn of 1957, when both tears and rain flooded her cheeks.
I would fall out of the car and into Granny's arms, and she'd carry me like the wind into her kitchen; fill my empty belly with her freshly baked bread; and place newborn kittens collected from neighboring farms, temporarily saved from their impending drowning, in my lap for my entertainment and delight. My grandfather, a silent mountain with loving blue eyes and massive hands used for picking potatoes, would tousle my hair until bits of earth fell from under his fingernails and across my eyelashes.
I knew they loved me with every pint of their blood. I could taste it in the milk Granny squeezed from her cows. I could smell it in the smoke Granddad teased from the turf fire. I could hear it in their prayers as they knelt at their bedside after they'd removed their teeth.
I treasured them in those summers as one admires the autumn leaves of red and gold. I knew I wouldn't have them forever.CHAPTER 3
American Pie — Don McLean
"Is this you?" I ask my father as I scan faded photographs in a shoebox he stores in the closet where he keeps his winter coats.
"Yes, this is your grandmother with me, Cack, and Peg in the Bronx." He points at a photo of his mother and sisters standing in front of a black car parked outside a tall brick apartment building on 176th Street. "And that's our 1940 Chevy."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Migrating toward Happiness"
Copyright © 2019 Tara O'Grady.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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.
Table of Contents
Part 1: Chrysalis,
1. (In My) Solitude — Billie Holiday, 3,
2. New York State of Mind — Billy Joel, 9,
3. American Pie — Don McLean, 13,
4. Nora — Traditional Irish Folk, 17,
5. Lookin' for Love (In All the Wrong Places) — Johnny Lee, 19,
6. Strawberry Fields Forever — The Beatles, 25,
7. London Calling — The Clash, 31,
8. Let's Get away from It All — Frank Sinatra, 39,
9. Moon River — Audrey Hepburn, 44,
10. Stand by Me — Ben E. King, 53,
Part 2: Metamorphosis,
11. Stairway to Heaven — Led Zeppelin, 65,
12. Over the Rainbow — Judy Garland, 77,
13. See the USA in Your Chevrolet — Dinah Shore, 84,
14. On the Road Again — Willie Nelson, 91,
Part 3: Migration,
15. Sentimental Journey — Doris Day, 97,
16. I've Got the World on a String — Cab Calloway, 105,
17. My Way — Frank Sinatra, 112,
18. Blue Suede Shoes — Elvis Presley, 119,
19. We're Off to See the Wizard — Judy Garland, 128,
20. Badlands — Bruce Springsteen, 135,
21. Stars Fell on Alabama — Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, 144,
22. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues — Emmylou Harris, 149,
23. Don't Fence Me In — Roy Rogers, 161,
24. Synchronicity — The Police, 165,
25. Earth Angel — The Penguins, 174,
26. Faith — George Michael, 179,
27. From Galway to Graceland — Richard Thompson, 187,
28. Take Me Home, Country Roads — John Denver, 192,
29. America — Neil Diamond, 201,
30. Into the Mystic — Van Morrison, 205,
31. Dream a Little Dream of Me — Bing Crosby, 208,
32. Get Happy — Judy Garland, 216,
33. The Best Is Yet to Come — Tony Bennett, 221,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I just finished reading this book today, and I loved every page of it. While the story belongs to the author, I saw myself in her shoes all along the way. It felt like she was plucking my feelings right from my head and from my heart. I think her writing is extremely relatable and had me both giggling and tearing up at times. She writes of following the spirit of her Granny across the US, and it's really comforting to know that your loved ones are never really gone. I always used to be so skeptical about reading too much into signs. However, there were far too many '57 Chevy sightings and serendipitous events in this story that can't merely be waved off as pure coincidence. After reading this book, I find myself far more open to the possibility that maybe I'm missing out if I don't pay more attention to the signs the Universe is putting in front of me! Do yourself a favor and get this book. You won't regret it. Total side note: I created a playlist from her chapter titles. Best. Playlist. Ever!
This book has inspired me to take the same trip as this author only I will be following in HER footsteps. I always wanted to see the USA via a road trip and hope to have the same kind of adventures as this author. Loved the book and oh my, what a way with words.
I couldn’t put this book down. The words flow like maple syrup off a stack of pancakes. Tara O’Grady has definitely capitalized on her Irish heritage and gift of gab by creating a written piece that is not only passionate but witty, sad, happy and alltogether so very readable and positively enjoyable. Her story about replicating a road trip her adventurous grandmother took more than 50 years before is so much fun that I wish I could have tagged along and I found myself wanting more.