I’d felt myself drifting for years. My mom became a Jehovah’s Witness when I was 10-ish, and for most of my kid-dom, I truly believed as much as any kid can “believe” in anything. But the older I got and the more I read and learned, the more I began to doubt the foundation of the whole thing, Witnesses’ interpretation of the Bible, and any interpretation of the Bible at all. I was starting to doubt the very idea that there’s any truth to life, a fairly common thought at age 17 but one that’s kind of scary when you’ve been raised in a religion that refers to itself, and only itself, as The Truth.
I was the only one who saw her.
I was on Third Avenue in the 40s during the Lord of the Flies atmosphere that is the lunch rush when she appeared. She had curly blond hair and a giant pink bow and enormous matching sunglasses and a black tank top. She could’ve bought it all at Madonna’s yard sale circa 1987. She looked like she was eight feet tall because she was wearing rollerblades, scooting leisurely up the sidewalk. Her eyes were trained not toward her destination, but on a giant white iPhone with a gold trim case. I got a good look at the iPhone because her path aimed straight at me no matter how many sidesteps I took. Her ears were plugged up with headphones. She’d deliberately blunted her two most danger-alerting senses as she wheeled through streets full of cars, trucks, bikes, and eight million other people. Millions of years to give her perfect eyes and perfect ears to alert her to danger and she dismissed them all. She missed me by a centimeter or two as she scooted past.
Mayor Bill de Blasio caught a lot of flack on Thursday for not closing schools in the face of an all-day snowstorm. He even raised the ire of the normally apolitical Al Roker, who horned in on Nate Silver’s turf by predicting de Blasio would be a one-termer for his shoddy response to the inclement weather.
The mayor’s office did a bad job of storm response, and an even worse job of handling criticism. However, his response pointed to an even bigger issue. Namely, that schools and municipal governments everywhere (not just New York City) have failed to evolve along with the changing needs of working families.
Once, it was more common for a family to have one breadwinner and one stay-at-home parent. This has not been the case in the majority of households for several decades. By 2007, there were three times as many households with two earners as households with just one. And that’s across America as a whole. It’s hard to find comparable stats for New York City, but the simple economics of living there require both adults in a two-parent household to work.
New York City tends to not shut down the school system because doing so induces a ripple effect that negatively impacts thousands of businesses, as workers are forced to stay home and watch their kids. The mayor’s response when criticized for leaving the schools open was clumsy at best; some of his assertions were straight up not true, like when he insisted the National Weather Service’s snow predictions underestimated the strength of the storm, which they did not. But de Blasio did one thing right when he pointed to the impact closing schools has on working parents as his primary reason for that decision.
However, the school system doesn’t work on the same schedule as most businesses. Most parents work 9 to 5 or 6, but schools close at 2:30, for seemingly no other reason than that’s when they’ve always closed, and because there used to be stay-at-home parents waiting to receive all these kids mid-afternoon.
For most parents, the childcare gap is occupied by afterschool programs. Some are run directly by the city; others are funded by city grants and run by community organizations. These provide a vital service for working families, especially for low-income households that can apply for such services at low or no cost.
Here’s where the issue lies. Education—as represented by the school system—is considered a vital service. Child care—as represented by the afterschool programs—is not. The number of two-earner households continues to rise, a trend that is unlikely to reverse in our lifetimes. And yet school systems, and the municipalities who own them, continue to regard child care services that serve working families (such as afterschool programs) as something “extra,” a nice add-on. In reality, these services are every bit as vital to working parents as school itself.
On Thursday, though schools were open, the Department of Education canceled all afterschool programs (see screenshot from the DOE’s website below), already the third time they were canceled since the first of the year. When afterschool programs are canceled, it forces parents to leave work early and travel home on roads that are, presumably, treacherous enough to warrant said cancellation.
How this affects a working parent depends on what kind of work the parent does. If you have a professional office-type job, your management is probably sensitive to these issues. Thus, leaving work early to pick up your kid in a snowstorm is a mere inconvenience. If you’re salaried, you won’t have to worry about losing any money to do so.
But let’s say you work in retail or the service industry. Your boss might let you leave, but you won’t get paid. Someone who works a retail or service job will probably feel the loss of a few hours’ pay more keenly than a better-compensated office worker would. In short, the cancellation of afterschool programs hurts most those who can afford it least.
The failure to recognize the importance of afterschool programs is indicative of a larger failure of school systems everywhere to adapt to the needs of modern households. In New York State, for instance, there are around 180 school days per year. Assuming a parent gets two weeks’ vacation, receives all major holidays off, and never has to work weekends, he or she has to be at work about 230 days a year. That leaves a differential of 50 days, and even this gap assumes an amount of off time that many parents can’t count on.
Compared to the rest of the industrialized world, American adults have a pronounced antipathy to taking days off of work. This has to do less with ingrained Puritan work ethic and more to do with the fact that many of us simply can’t afford lengthy vacations. And yet, we give our children one of the shortest school years in the world. Making kids spend more time in school clashes with our post-Boomer notion that the ideal childhood is filled with acres of free time to play and be creative. This is how parents wind up with a gap of 50 days (or more for many parents) that must be filled by some form of child care.
What’s especially infuriating about this gap is how little bearing it has on the realities of modern lives. The bulk of those 50 days are comprised of summer vacation, an antiquated remnant from the days when most kids had to help out on farms during the hotter months. The rest comes from extended vacations that do not correspond to any parallel time off received by working adults. The discrepancy between the schedules of school-age children and the schedules of earners forces periodic child care crises, adding unnecessary stress to the already stressful state of being a working parent.
Next week, kids in New York City won’t just have off for President’s Day. They receive five days of something called Mid-Winter Recess. Most working parents don’t get their own Mid-Winter Recess. There are day camps to take care of all those unleashed kids, assuming parents can afford them. Those who can’t have to hope a grandmother or friend can keep an eye on the kids. If not, they have to take off those five days, assuming their boss will let them come back to work when it’s all over. And keep in mind that this Mid-Winter Recess comes only six weeks after kids were off for eight days around Christmas and New Year’s.
All this time off has no relevance to a modern family’s schedule, and it might even be detrimental to children’s academic development. The same can be said of a school day that ends when most parents still have hours left on the clock.
Of course, there is no solution that will make everyone happy. Absent federal legislation for paid family leave (which seems a non-starter), it would basically require employers to be accommodating to working families’ schedules. Any solution would also require teachers to work more days and hours. Most teachers would say they work hard enough as it is, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. But the difficulty of arriving at a solution shouldn’t be a reason to not fix something that’s clearly broken.
There has to be some way to shrink the time gap between working parents and their children. Perhaps it begins with thinking of those post-2:30 hours not as afterschool, but school period, thinking of child care not as some extra thing but a necessary thing. Until we do, snow days are the least of our problems.
This morning’s run takes me down a service road of the Long Island Expressway as it soars toward Queens Boulevard. Here I pass by guys just stumbling home from third shift, or blindly feeling their way toward their cars to start their day. I also see the Can People in their true element. You probably only know the daytime Can People, deferential, quiet, slightly ashamed. But if you wake up this early, you will see the Can People brazenly fording front yards and alleyways, unlatching gates to make their raids and move on to the next plunder.
Along this service road stand a few little concrete triangles, formed when the street grid hit the arc of the highway’s shadow. These little spots are too small to build or plant anything on, so they just sit there, serving no function but to provide yet another parking space.
On one such triangle, someone has parked a brand new cherry-red Corvette. It would gleam if there was any sun to bounce off of it. I marvel at the thought of the man who owns this thing and think to myself, “Man, I wish I was him.”
I do not think this because I want a Corvette, or because I want some fabulously wealthy life I imagine he has. For all I know, this guy’s eyes are bigger than his wallet and the payments are more than he can afford. Considering the neighborhood, this is more than likely.
I feel this envy because this man was able to park his brand new sports car on a service road, mere feet from the highway on-ramp. It’s a spot where the car could easily be sideswiped by a semi, or keyed by late-night vandals, or broken into, hotwired, and zipped out onto the highway in 10 seconds flat, and no one who perpetrated any of these crimes would ever be caught.
I once parked my car on a service road just like this, on a late night when I tired of circling the neighborhood for parking. When I went to check on the car the next day, it was long gone. And my car was an ancient Oldsmobile, not some high octane muscle car.
And yet, this man parked his car on the service road anyway, and he is surely sleeping like a baby right now. I can barely conceive of a soul so unworried. What I wouldn’t give to live my life so free of concern, just for a day or two.
Another little triangle sits one block away from the Corvette. This one is seeded with some sickly grass and demarcated with a wobbly chainlink fence, an entrance padlocked. Within its confines, a baby blue car of early 80s vintage. It is dented all over with covered in stickers, with a huge 13 plastered to the driver’s side door. A cinder block rests on the hood.
It’s a demolition derby car. Another complete lack of worry on display here, albeit of a different stripe. A man who would ping-pong a dirt track in vintage Bonneville is a man who thinks injury and pain will never touch him. I can’t imagine what such a life must be like.
I’m on my way home. I read a book for a while, one I can’t decide if I like or not. Then I tire of trying to figure what side of the fence I’m on and clamp headphones to my ears. The book is replaced with a Jean Shepherd radio show from 1966. I know where I stand on Shep.
In this episode, Shep talked (among other things) about one of his first radio gigs: hosting a remote from a funeral parlor on the south side of Chicago. One of the funeral parlor’s employees would play hymns on a Wurlitzer organ, with Shep occasionally interjecting a pitch for the sponsor’s services. In his retelling, he promised his audience the tale was the god’s honest truth, even raising his right hand as if swearing on a Bible. It was the radio, of course. The audience had to take his word on that gesture as much as they had to on the truthfulness of his story.
I’m standing near a door. A young man seated in front of me gestures, trying to get my attention. He might have been doing it for a while. I was so wrapped up in Shep’s funeral parlor tale I wouldn’t have noticed. I yank out one headphone, but don’t quite catch what he’s saying. So I yank out the other headphone, but his words are no clearer. I ask him to repeat himself.
“Elmhurst?” he says, pointing a thumb over his shoulder in the general direction of the station we’re about to leave. It is in fact Elmhurst Avenue. I don’t know why he won’t turn around and take a look for himself out the window to his back, but I confirm that yes, this is Elmhurst. The doors have already closed. If Elmhurst was his stop, he’s too late to catch it.
But it seems it’s not his stop. He says something that I can’t quite make out. It unsettles me because I can’t understand why I can’t understand him. He has no thick accent and he speaks clearly. And yet, something about the way he talks interferes with understanding. His words are slow to register in my brain. I ask him to repeat himself.
“[BLANK] got shot here on Saturday,” he says. “He was killed.”
I can think of nothing to say except, “I hadn’t heard about that.”
“It was on the news,” the young man says. His voice remains flat and distant. The look on his face matches. He’s not trying stir up sympathy. He’s disseminating cold, raw information that he feels I should know. He could be telling me when this station was built, or how many people live in this Congressional district.
I paraphrase myself, “I’m sorry, I hadn’t heard about it.”
“It was in the papers,” he says. “In the metro.” He adds corroborating evidence, but maintains the same level of emotion: zero.
My stop arrives. I line myself at the door, anxious to leave. The young man speaks again. “Woodhaven?” he asks, investing the street name with only the slightest hint of a question mark as he jabs a thumb toward the platform behind him. He says Woodhaven like it stands for a complete phrase all the world should know how to respond to.
“No, this is Grand,” I say. The doors should be open by now, but they’re not.
“Woodhaven?” he asks once more, as if he hadn’t heard me.
“Woodhaven’s the next stop,” I tell him. But he keeps staring at me. He doesn’t want to know where he is. He wants to tell me more about what Woodhaven signifies to his mind, what information it conveys to him that he must share with this train, and he says something. I hear words and I see his lips move, but none of it makes an impression. I’m sure what he says makes sense, but not to me.
“Woodhaven’s next,” I say as I rush out of the train, though I know it’s not what he wanted to hear. And then I add, “Sorry,” as the doors close. I couldn’t leave without saying that I could not help him.
I’ve been going on long runs lately, starting from my house and jogging to points I previously thought impossible. This feels much more productive than running at a park closer to home, where I know I can stop at any time and slunk back to my couch in 5 minutes. But if I run very far away, I have no choice but to run back.
So I’m jogging at one of the extremities of Juniper Valley Park. Across the street, a trio of Tudor houses squished together, a copy of an idea of genteel English towne life. But something looks off, so off that I have to stop running for a moment and figure out exactly what it is.
All three of the houses have chimneys that jut out into their tiny lawns. The faces of these chimneys are mostly concrete, with brick embedded to form cute little shapes. Two of the houses have chimney faces with brick arranged as diamonds, florid pineapples, majestic eagles.
The third house has none of this. Instead, at the very top, bricks spell out what appears to be a year, 1931. The last digit is a bit unclear, as the artist didn’t plan well and ran out of usable room when he reached the fourth number. Beneath that, four letters, staggered in zig-zag shape: S P C R. I get the impression these are initials.
Back in the day, the first two houses must have been furious at this third one. At that time, Queens was a leafy suburb, with little but the Long Island Railroad connecting it to Manhattan and elsewhere. There were still farms nearby, if you can believe that. These folks had made their little escape from the dirt and noise of The City and settled in this quiet spot, in a neighborhood whose very name implied moderation and peace—Middle Village—hoping to recreate some notion of what they assumed to be respectable suburban life.
And then house number three says “eff that” and marked up their chimney like a kid poking his finger through wet sidewalk cement. Monocles were dropped. Fainting couches summoned.
I continue my run and turn a corner. 100 feet down the road, I spot a yellow Mustang with a vanity license plate: LGR 50, flanked by a Rangers logo. It’s that house again, reborn in a different form. Whatever the year and whatever the shell, we just want the world to know there’s someone real inside.
I’ve just exited the subway. Light rain is falling. Very light. One or two drops every minute. It’s the kind of rain you wouldn’t even notice unless you were bald and wearing no hat, like me, and each drop stung your scalp.
Coming around the corner ahead, by Father Demo Square, a chubby kid in a parochial school uniform. White shirt, khaki pants, black-rim glasses. Looks to be about 12. In junior high or almost there. I say chubby because it takes a lot of work to be fat at that age. He is simply trapped in a body that grew out before it grew up. In his left hand, he holds an enormous black umbrella, sheathed in a telescoping plastic holster. If he held it upright, you’d see the umbrella was more than half his height.
The boy looks uncomfortable walking. The umbrella is throwing off his balance. He walks like he’s not quite sure what to do with his legs. Like he doesn’t want to be where he is, but he wants to reach his destination even less.
He nears the point where the street straightens out and becomes 6th Avenue. There, by a sickly little tree sprouting bike locks, a pigeon is startled by his approach. The pigeon is near the boy’s eye level for a split second. During that split second, he raises his umbrella defensively, perpendicular to his body. Like this pigeon is a vampire and the umbrella is a half-finished crucifix.
The pigeon flutters away. The boy puts down his umbrella and looks defeated, utterly defeated. I can almost see a thought bubble above his head, I can’t believe I did that.
Something in me wants to stop the boy and give him some kind of It gets better spiel, but I know that would be a lie. He might outgrow this body, but the Scared Fat Kid stays within you forever. He lopes on his way past me, on his way to a place where is learning how to hate himself.
Post-work run down Borden Avenue. Almost done, tiring. I slow down near the ballfields across the street from the Hess station and Mt. Zion. On the field stand two off-the-boat Irish. They’re flaked with sheetrock dust from their day’s work. One stands near home plate, the other near the mound. Both of them have a hurling stick gripped in their hands, and they’re using them to lob a racquetball-sized sphere back and forth.
We had a hurling stick in our house when I was a kid. My dad brought it back from Ardee after he buried my grandfather. Hurling is Irish field hockey, basically. According to my dad, it was a deadly game, much like the brutish Gaelic football my grandfather used to play. Players would line the bottoms of their sticks with blunt metal strips held in place with nails, both to keep the wood from chipping against the turf and so the stick would do maximum damage in close-quarter scrums.
The hurling stick sat in a toy chest in the garage along with a Keith Hernandez Louisville slugger, cracked Wiffle Ball bats, and other blunt instruments, waiting to be unsheathed whenever me and my brothers made up some new game. These games would inevitably break down as we debated the rules, and the hurling stick would be used to avenge some slight, real or imagined. Crying and punishment would ensue, followed by parental threats to take that damn hurling stick away from us, resulting in more crying. No, mom, no, don’t take it away, we’ll be good.
I blamed the stick. It was such a perfectly designed implement of mayhem, it practically begged to be slammed against your brother’s calf. It surely was infused with some dark magic, the spirit that pervaded the sport for which it was intended.
And yet here I see these two men, surely exhausted from a day of work yet using their hurleys to relax, to lightly toss a little ball back and forth, back and forth, violence nowhere to be seen. I stop and look on for a moment while the sun sets behind me, and I feel I’m seeing some spell being snapped, some war being won.
Death is never far in Queens, the borough of graves, but it creeps closer in certain places than others. One such place is Mount Olivet Crescent, a slip of a street that wends its way up a hill in Maspeth and down another in Middle Village. The Crescent is bordered on one side by its namesake cemetery, a lush expanse of granite mausoleums, angels, and obelisks cut in half by the busy thoroughfare of Eliot Avenue. A few ramshackle flower shops hang on for dear life, squeezed on all sides by vinyl-sided one-family houses and a sore thumb of a chrome-plated apartment complex. The Crescent comes to rest near an enormous sign pointing the way to the parking lot for the Hess-Miller Funeral Home, host to more than a few wakes for family members of mine.
At the Crescent’s summit, the Fresh Pond Crematory looms over it all, a cream-colored slab with a circular driveway paved in brick, ideal for the approach of hearses. Built in 1884, the exterior resembles a crossbreed between federal mint and Gilded Age prison. Cremation was rare enough in those days that a Brooklyn Eagle reporter made the long trip to Fresh Pond after hearing the mere rumor a wealthy German businessman was to be cremated there. The reporter soon found himself in an Abbott and Costello-esque exchange with one of the attendants, who impatiently explained he could cremate no one until the oven was complete.
The reporter eventually got what he wanted: a graphic description of exactly what cremation does to the human body. (“The total weight of the ashes of a full grown man would only be six or seven pounds.”) He also received a defense of the practice from the attendant, based largely on the overcrowded state of the city’s cemeteries and some other concerns about corpses that haunted the Victorian mind.
Oh, cremation is what we must all come to, and it has a great many advantages when you look at it in the right light. You can’t wake up after burial and find yourself choking to death with six feet of earth over you and your coffin nailed down, and medical students can’t snatch your bones and monkey with them in their dissecting rooms. You can have your cemeteries all the same, and set these urns in them and plant flowers about the urns; that will be all right and nobody will be hurt. This thing has to come.
The crematory has grown considerably since those days, when nearby residents were worried about the smell such a facility might produce. A towering smokestack now announces its true purpose, as do the large copper letters over the main entrance, dripping green with its name. Beneath, in smaller, more polished type, is the announcement AMERICAN COLUMBARIUM CO., INC.
As the subway doors unlatch, someone shoves me in the back, hard. This is more than the usual L train jostle. It is especially aggressive even for the Union Square stop, where the “I’m ignoring your humanity to make my commute slightly easier” brush-by is standard operating procedure. This move must have sinister purpose behind it, I assume. And so I pivot from my 7:30 am perch on the overhead bar and turn to face my aggressor. I have nothing planned other than a dirty look. I do this all the time even though it’s a move with no upside whatsoever. At best, I will get to see the face of someone who regards me as little more than an insect. At worst, I will find myself in a fistfight.
When I turn, I see the man who shoved me. Shaved head, black windbreaker scuffed with sheetrock dust and eggshell paint. He has the lumbering gait of a drunk launching himself from one parking meter to the next on the long walk home. He may very well be drunk, for all I can tell. This wouldn’t be the first guy I’ve seen stewed to the gills at this early hour on the subway. Then he careens into a woman much smaller than him, his shoulder stooping to her height. It doesn’t look intentional. He’s fighting something, and losing. His knees buckle beneath him, and his head begins to twitch and jerk.
“He’s having a seizure!” a woman yells. It sounds like dialogue from a script that doesn’t trust its director to explain things visually. I almost laugh, and yet I understand the urge to yell out something the second it hits your brain at a weird moment like this one. The crowd parts around the man, and the sudden lack of bodies speeds his descent. However, he has enough control of his facilities to lower himself, first sitting, then prone as he continues to shake.
The train remains paused. Not to address the man’s condition, but to let out the large crowd of people who depart at Union Square. Some of those who remain stare, while others look away, embarrassed. No one is quite sure what to do. We’re all spooked, myself included. But I’m spooked for a different reason. This all feels too familiar to me.