Thursday, June 9, 2011

Nostalgia is a Four-Letter Word

My grandmother, Elizabeth (Betty), had what seemed like a billion siblings, all flung throughout northeastern Pennsylvania (where she was raised) and the boroughs of New York.  Two of them, my (great) Aunt Peggy and Uncle Bill, lived in the afore-alluded to Queens, NY and, as my grandparents settled in South Central Pennsylvania when my mom and Uncle Ted were children (they migrated down here with a few more of my grandmother's siblings--my great uncles Dave and Joe), she and her brother Dave (she called him "David" or, as she pronounced it "DAY-vit!") often visited Peggy and Bill, bringing various combinations of her children and grandchildren with her.

I remember these trips in a vague way. I was young--seven or eight. And while I think what I am remembering are moments form a dozen or so trips, what my mind is most likely doing is chopping up recollections of maybe three trips and tossing them around so they feel as if they cover a much longer span of time.  This was the mid-to-late seventies. It was Ed Koch's New York. Before the Guilianification of Manhattan. This was when you didn't even so much as look in the direction of 42nd Street; it was Saturday Night Live and Saturday Night Fever ("don't touch the hey-ya!"); it was Son of Sam and the Sugarhill Gang.

Funny. I can't honestly say that I have fond memories of that time, but only because I was far too young to really have many meaningful ones (even the few things I mention above come not from direct experience, but from somewhere else, sometime after the fact). What I remember is vague, a little fuzzy around the edges. I remember not going up to the top of the Empire State Building because I had to pee and no one could remember if there was a bathroom up there or not. I remember a hot and claustrophobic climb inside the Statue of Liberty, the zoo in Central Park, Penn Station lockers, a man on the subway with a gun in a holster, another man, obviously in drag (even to my young eyes I could tell she was a he.  "And the colored girls sing Do da do, da do, do da do, do...") our waitress in a restaurant with an enormous black beehive and a long, almost unbelievably long, thumbnail, painted a glittering gold, that was clamped over the edge of the plate she was carrying. Of my aunt's house--a standard three-story brownstone carved into apartments, I remember the back staircase that connected her second-floor space to her son's third floor abode.  I remember a clothes washer in the kitchen and my great Uncle Ralph's very progressive record collection (He liked Pink Floyd!)

What I can say is that these memories--as gauzy as they are--fill me with a sense of both longing and satisfaction. It's the same feeling I get when my ear catches the melody of a long-forgotten yet much-enjoyed song. The same feeling I get when I stumble upon Ponyboy and Dally do it for Johnny! For Johnny! while I'm flipping through the channels. The same way I feel when I read the Giving Tree, or hear the late-August cicada chirping after dark.  I believe that feeling I'm describing is called "nostalgia" and that's a dirty word in literary circles. Nostalgic writing is treacly and cloying, overwrought and ham-handed and should be avoided at all costs.

The other day I was looking out my bedroom window.  It's something I do often, because I like the view. The view, however, is not spectacular. It's just the backs of my neighbors houses--two long rows on either side of an alley. I see their backyards in profile.  That day, while gazing on this less-then-impressive landscape, I realized why I like it so much. It reminds me of my time in New York. And I get--gasp!--nostalgic. I can't help it. I look out my bedroom window and see the backs of my neighbors' homes--the brick rowhouses identical to my own--with their long, narrow (sometimes completely concrete) backyards, the mashup of fences that look like row after row of crooked teeth, the fans spinning lazily in windows--and I see Queens, circa 1977.  I see Jamaica Ave and the white tee shirts hung on a laundry line that spanned two houses, strung across an alley, three flights up. I smell the hot, musty, urine-tinged air blasting up through a subway grate, I feel the grit of the city in my eyes, on the back of my neck, feel the stick of it under the soles of the shoes my mother bought me at Murphy's.

I could stare for hours out of that bedroom window--indeed, I've lost a few lazy Sunday afternoons doing just that.  At least I thought that's what I was doing; just mindlessly staring at brick and aluminium and tar paper. It occurs to me now, though that what I've really been working on is trying to find a way to talk about the feelings that this view churns up inside.

I read over what I've just written and realize, with disappointment, that I'm not there yet. That this is just the surface of the surface. I haven't even made a mark on it. I have a long way to go.

As I was writing all this, I was watching a spectacular electrical storm from that very window. It both frightened and fascinated me, and that's exactly how I feel about the writing tasks that lie ahead of me.

1 comment:

  1. once again, i was screwed by blogger. my brilliant comment, alas, is lost in the void. but the gist was, you do yourself a short changing kind of credit here at the end. you feel disappointment in what you've written, but i think you've done quite well with some of that literary pointilism, gauzy and tangled though it is. but it's perfect because the juxtaposition of disparate facts creates its own sort of tension and leads a reader (like me, anyway) right into the forest, curiosity too piqued to bother marking our trail to get out. besides, we know the birds will eat our bread, anyway, might as well hold onto it and save it for later. we'll need all the sustenance we can get when we're good and truly lost.