Fort Independence Street
December 12, 2011
Think of it like a movie. Then you’ll see it the way I see it, the way I’ve been seeing it for the past 30 years or so. There’s a girl, around 7, in the front passenger seat of a car. You can tell just by that, a child sitting in the front seat of a car, that it’s a long time ago. Plus the driver, the man, my stepfather, with his sideburns and horn-rimmed glasses. And the car, an Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight. And the song on the radio: Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” I’m saying, “Turn it up,” because I love this song and I need to hear it as loud as possible. “Isn’t it funny,” my stepfather is saying, “that when a song you like comes on the radio you want to hear it really loud. And when the next song comes on, it just sounds too loud.” Maybe he didn’t say this exactly then, maybe another time, but I remember it like this, and it’s just right for now.
Now cut to him dropping me off in front of a tall white apartment building. This is where my alternative private school is located, actually on an entire floor of the building, though the rest of the building is residential. Eventually the school would move out of this apartment building and have a two-story brick school building built on its own little property. And then many years later the director would suddenly close the school, running off with the parents’ tuition money, never to return. But at this point it’s still in its early experimental phase, with young long-haired teachers we called by their first names. And it’s still in a residential apartment building.
Here I get out of the car, turn around and wave to my stepfather. He waves back, then drives off. I am about to enter the building. But there’s a doorman standing there, a doorman who has probably seen me go into and out of that building every day for about three years. He knows why I’m there. “No school today,” he says. And there I am. No school.
Somehow someone should have known, I guess, but no one did. Was it a holiday? I think we would have known that. Maybe a minor holiday, in which offices stay open but schools don’t? Except that back then, there weren’t really minor holidays like that. What had happened? To this day it is a mystery to me.
So cut back to the girl, me. I have simply turned around and set out to walk home. I have never walked home before, and have no idea how to do it exactly. I have since figured out that the distance was a little over two miles. Two miles could have been 100 miles to me. What did I know. It was simply the thing I had to do. My mother and stepfather were at work. School was closed. I set off.
So here I am, a little girl walking through the streets of the Bronx at sometime around nine in the morning. I must be dressed for the weather, since I don’t feel cold. And here’s where I was able to see myself as others must have seen me. If others saw me at all. Aware of myself walking, aware that I was a little girl heading home, which was somewhere straight ahead of me. The streets were somewhat familiar. I had, of course, passed them all in the car, every day. But walking down them wasn’t quite the same and I looked for buildings I knew, something that told me I was headed in the right direction.
And these streets that I walked down, they were not beautiful by any means, but every time I see them from a car window when I have the radio turned up loud because there’s a song on there I like, every time I see these familiar streets I feel it: home. And in actual movies, it’s scenes of these streets that bring tears to my eyes: my hometown.
But here I am, still walking. At some point I pass the Stella D’Oro factory on 237th Street, which I hardly ever see close up, but know instantly from the smell coming from within. The smell of cookies or cakes or some kind of confection that made us all swoony every single morning. It had a big sign on the building that flashed the time/temperature that I could see from my bedroom window. In a real movie, I would have stopped in front of the factory and looked up in triumph. I was headed the right way! I was on my way home! But knowing me as I was then, I just looked up, saw the big Stella D’Oro letters and the sign with the time/temperature, and kept on. Maybe I smiled to myself. I’d like to think that I did.
And eventually I will make it home. I won’t have a key, not yet. Instead I will just hang around the front of my building until someone comes in or out, and I’ll get in that way. And then I will go to the laundry room in the basement, a place I know will be open, a place I have always found comforting. I will think to myself, while sitting on a chair in the laundry room, that I will just wait it out, wait until my mother or stepfather gets home. Of course, I won’t realize this could be many hours. But then Fran Santora, a neighbor, will notice me. Fran Santora, who has two or maybe three boys, all older than me, will take me upstairs to her apartment (where her kids are mysteriously at school) and will give me lunch and let me watch TV for hours until my mother comes home, where she will be surprised to find me there at all.
And my mother will shriek with laughter when telling the story, which she will do, repeatedly, to just about everyone. “She walked home! Can you believe it? She just walked home! And then Fran Santora found her in the laundry room! Isn’t that just hysterical?” And I will listen to this story, told over and over again, and realize that it is not my story, but hers.
But later, much later, I will think about the journey, that point when I wasn’t at school and I wasn’t at home, the place of streets and factories and everything else I passed by. I will try to recapture it on long walks I take everywhere, in Brooklyn, Astoria, Dublin, Madrid. I will look at the buildings and the streets and it will connect me to my first walk, the one that I keep going over in my mind, the one that started it all, the one that made me want to keep walking every place I ever went.
And right now, cut to me. I have just walked the two miles and my big brick apartment building looms in front of me. I have done it. I have found my way home. Right now it’s still my story. Right now all I have to do is cross one busy street and then I’ll be there, back home even though I’m supposed to be at school. No one is around. The street is mine. As always, I look both ways before crossing.
Reyna Eisenstark is a freelance writer living in upstate New York, but was born and raised in New York City, where she told stories in her head as early as she remembers and started writing them down soon after. She has a blog in which she writes about what she is reading and sometimes not even that: http://www.quicklyandslowly.blogspot.com.