Posted by: jevcat | June 20, 2010

Father’s Day Thoughts on the Nature of How We Look at Things

It’s Father’s Day, and I find I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of memory and how we look at things.  Some of us have been blessed with a tendency to remember the good more than the bad.  I know people who can recite, in voluminous and loving detail, wrongs inflicted on them fifty years ago.  When I talk with friends from high school, I am taken aback at the way they remember those days as awful, when what I think of most is the fun, although I do also remember that there was pain. 

I recently heard a Tibetan lama give a teaching in which he talked, in part, about the way how we choose to see things affects us.  Yes, there is pain, there are wrongs, there is evil in the world, but if we choose to concentrate on that, we limit ourselves.  This isn’t to say that injustice must be accepted, but that compassion requires us to refuse the trap of dwelling in the pain rather than moving on.  I choose to at least try to have compassion – on myself as well as others – and at least attempt to move on.

My dad had many faults but also many virtues.  As with many of us, it could sometimes be hard to see where one crossed over into the other.  Dad loved railroads and everything about them, even choosing to work for the New York Central Railroad (which became PennCentral, which became Conrail and Amtrak), even though his was a desk job, because it kept him close to his beloved trains.  He took a child-like delight in them and in New York history and was always eager to share this with everyone – whether we wanted it shared or not.  If only the sarcastic phrase “Feel free not to share” had been invented earlier, my brother and I would have used it during our childhoods – a lot.

Despite Dad’s wide-ranging knowledge of the city and the subway system, my brother and I used to go to great lengths to avoid asking him for directions when going to a new place in the city.  We would consult with each other, our mother, friends – only as a last result would we turn to Dad.  When asked why, we would explain with a line that became a family joke:  Dad could tell you how to get from any Point A in the city to any Point B in the city with the most possible changes.

Extracting subway directions from Dad was never a simple process.  He would always tell you at least two different ways to go, explaining at length the relative merits of each and any relevant city or subway history involved in the locations, the route, the surrounding neighborhoods, and on and on.  He was known to tell you, when really pressed, that the most direct route was such and such and then advise you not to take it because if you took this other, longer and more involved one, you would get to change trains at a place where you had to walk through a tunnel where there were these wonderful murals ….  He would lead you into areas where, as a local radio host used to say, you wouldn’t want to walk with two hungry alligators on leashes, just to show off something he found wonderful.

I remember one time, when I was in my early twenties and still living at home, I mentioned that I was setting off from our Washington Heights apartment to meet the man I was dating at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.  Dad asked, “How are you going?”  To me, this was a silly question; I was going the way I always went:  get the 1 train a few blocks from our house, change at 96th Street for the 2 or 3, get off at Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum, go upstairs and walk into the gardens.

No, no, no was the response.  I had to take the Franklin Avenue Shuttle, it was one of the oldest lines in the city, it was historic, I must see it.  I finally agreed because I knew if I didn’t, I was going to have to listen all night to the reasons why I should have.  For the purposes of this piece, I am not going to spend the time to look up the exact directions, but at some point I had to change from whatever train I was on to the shuttle.  What was not mentioned was that this was not an ordinary transfer.  When I got there, I discovered that to change trains here, you had to get off the original train, go through the turnstiles, stand in line at the token booth to get a paper transfer, exit the subway to the street, climb a flight of stairs to an elevated station, turn in your transfer, and go through a special entrance to get the shuttle.

Arriving on the street, I looked around me, appalled.  Washington Heights at that time was not a neighborhood many people wanted to spend much time in:  there was run-down and occasionally burned-out housing, there were drug and crime problems; but the family had lived there since it was a good neighborhood, we were surrounded by friends, and we were not uncomfortable being almost the only white people.  But in the neighborhood in which I found myself changing trains, I was not only the only white person, I appeared to be the only vertical person – and the area looked like Dresden after the bombing.  The station above me was dilapidated and, when I arrived on the platform, part of the wooden platform was sawhorsed off where someone had set fire to it, leaving a blackened hole.

It was an uneasy wait, and the train, when it arrived, carried me past more charred buildings and stations with caved-in roofs.  The station where I got off was almost at grade, and an overpass through which I had to walk to get to the exit was overgrown with vines that hung down so far I had to duck – I half expected to meet Tarzan and Cheetah underneath.  Up the steps and out, I had no idea where I was and nothing looked familiar, but ahead of me were two tourists, who had also been on the train.  I saw they had a guidebook, followed them, and soon breathed a sigh of relief as the dome of the Brooklyn Museum hove into view and I knew where I was.

When I arrived home – by my usual route – my father greeted me, as I’d known he would, with, “Did you take the Franklin Avenue Shuttle?”  “Yes,” I said, then practically shouted at him, “DO YOU KNOW WHAT KIND OF A NEIGHBORHOOD THAT GOES THROUGH?!”  He looked startled for a moment, almost wounded, then excitedly asked, “But weren’t the stations adorable?”

That was Dad:  even when you wanted most to throttle him, you had to love him.

[I should note here that the neighborhoods involved have changed much over the intervening 30 years, the Franklin Avenue Shuttle has been completely re-done and restored, and the transfer process made simpler.  I know this because I have read about it.  And one of these days, in Dad’s honor, I’m actually going to ride it again.]

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