Friday, June 12, 2009
The Drive to Stratford Road
"So how’s your father?”
The question caught me off-guard—not only because my father died over two years ago, but because it came from a car service driver whom I mistakenly assumed was a total stranger.
My girlfriend and I were going to a party at my blogging buddy Flatbush Gardner's house and we had been talking to each other during the ride. I was feeling a little uneasy because I was ignoring the driver—I usually like to chat with them—but I thought I’d give the guy a break.
It had been a hectic day. My girlfriend was coming down from the Bronx to visit me and I was racing around all morning, doing my weekend chores and cleaning—or attempting to clean—my house so she wouldn’t faint or run out the door screaming when she saw the place.
And I was walking back from food shopping when I saw a young father and his little girl walking up Fifth Avenue.
The girl was blond, about 5 years old, and just beautiful. She was hopping around while her father was talking on a cell phone.
“Daddy, look at me,” she said and broke into a little dance step as soon as her father turned her way.
I felt a familiar twinge of envy and regret I get sometimes when I see someone with a young child and I wonder why I didn’t have children of my own. It’s pointless to go through this regret, but that’s never stopped me before.
And while I’m not a parent, my experience with my nieces has taught me how quickly time flies by and how little moments like the one the girl was having with her father are so precious and fleeting.
My nieces are 21 and 14 years old, respectively, but it wasn’t so long ago that they were doing the same kinds of funny things that little blond girl was doing and asking me to look at them.
Look while you still can, I thought. Look while they still want to share things with you.
I came home and promptly got into a death match with the vacuum cleaner, which first refused to pick up any dirt from the porch carpet and then wouldn’t shut off until I yanked the plug out of the wall.
I handled the situation in my usual way—freaking out, cursing, calming down, and then realizing that I was the one who screwed up.
In this case, the hose was in the wrong nozzle and the power switch was fine, it was just that--well, this is a little disturbing--I couldn’t find the damn thing—even though I just turned the machine on two minutes before.
Stuff like this makes me nervous. My father suffered from dementia and one of the first things I noticed when his mind started to slip was that he became very forgetful...kind of like me.
I finished cleaning the carpet, my girlfriend showed up, and I called car service. We could have gotten there by subway, but I didn’t want her taking any more trains after making that haul down from the Bronx. And I didn’t feel taking the damn subway either.
The car showed up, I told the driver the address on Stratford Road, and we were off...for half a block.
“Where is this place?” the driver asked.
“I don’t know,” I said with a slice of attitude. “That’s why I called you guys.”
The driver pulled over and began tapping the address into the GPS unit. I regretted being snippy so I patiently read the address to him a couple of times, slowly spelling out “Stratford Road.”
The directions popped up on the screen, the thing started talking, and off we went. GPS is great, but I find it a little creepy. What's wrong with maps? What's so bad about rolling down the window--or powering down the window--and asking a guy on the street "where the hell am I?"
You Can't Get There From Here
I have to admit that I was a little ashamed at being so clueless about finding this place.
My father would have known where Stratford Road was in a second and he would have given you the directions easily.
He learned the streets of Brooklyn the old fashion way—by driving on them for years as a salesman until you could toss any street name at him and he’d toss the directions right back at you.
He had his own GPS unit in his head before age and illness took it away from him.
But I was also feeling bad because I’ve been going through a rough patch with my father lately, recalling the bad memories I have of him—the fights, the times he hurt my feelings or when I swore I'd never talk to him again. He's been gone so long, but I still holding on to all this misery.
I have no trouble remembering the things I should forget, but ask me to find the switch on the vacuum cleaner and I go into vapor lock. I need an emotional GPS unit to guide me away from the nonsense and point me in the right direction.
We turned on to Stratford Road and the computer was telling us repeatedly that we had arrived at our destination, arrived at our destination, arrived at our destination...
“It’s a good thing that we have the GPS thing,” I said to the driver.
“Yes,” he said. “The machines tell us what to do and we do it.”
I was thinking just how true and how unsettling that thought really was. And that’s when he dropped the question on me.
“So how’s your father?”
I didn’t know what to say. I had no memory of meeting him—oh boy—but then he said he used to take me and my dad over to the V.A. hospital for his checkups. And it all came back.
He was the closest thing we had to a regular driver back then. As I recall, he was from Egypt and he had been an electrician or some kind of engineer in his home country--and now he was driving cars in Brooklyn.
I was embarrassed that he had recognized me first. I told myself that his sunglasses had thrown me off, but I think the real reason was that I just wanted to forget those days when I was going to the V.A. with my father.
They were very stressful times; my dad could be very difficult and there was always the danger of him starting a fight with somebody at that hospital. I was also quite impatient and I wasn’t working at the time, so there was a layer of self-loathing on top of the whole mess.
I told the driver that my father had died in January 2007. As I handed him the fare, he turned to my girlfriend.
“He’s a good man,” he said, pointing to me, “he takes care of his father.”
I felt the guilt welling up in me, ashamed of holding on to those harsh memories when I should have let them go. I'm not a good man, I thought, when I was taking my father to the V.A., I really wanted to be thousands of miles away.
I shook the driver’s hand, wished him well, and we went to the party. I'm really glad now that I took car service.
And I’m thinking of that little blond girl I saw on Fifth Avenue, and how, when I was her age, I wanted to please my father, too; how I wanted to share things with him.
And how I used to say, “Daddy, look at me.”