Papa’s New York: from THE INVENTORS


You’d leave on Friday mornings. The trip took just a little over an hour, but you might as well have been taking off for Pluto or Neptune, it seemed so very far. As your father backed the Simca around the white birch in the turnaround you’d see your mother and your brother standing there, next to the garage, your mother waving, your twin brother crying, as you would cry next Friday when it would be George’s turn.

You rode past the War Memorial, the Danbury fairgrounds, the Dinosaur Gift & Mineral Shoppe, with its pink stucco tyrannosaurus. The Interstate had yet to be built, so you took the Saw Mill River Parkway. Past reservoirs, orchards, and nurseries you rolled, through Katonah, Chappaqua, Pleasantville, tallying bridges and groundhogs.

Your father hummed the Blue Danube and sang Maurice Chevalier songs, his Kent cigarette dangling, his arm out the window, preferring it to the turning signal, his other hand steering, its knuckles stained with metal grime. The Simca’s glove compartment burst with service station roadmaps, but he never consulted them. The city’s outskirts were a tangle of parkways, thruways, expressways, toll roads and turnpikes; that your father could untangle them amazed you. But then they seemed to belong to him, those tangled highways, as did everything to do with New York City.

At the Henry Hudson Bridge he’d toss a nickel into the toll basket. You rolled under the girders of the George Washington Bridge. Here the city began in earnest. The Cloisters, Grant’s Tomb. Among drab shapes in the distance patches of color appeared, the bright funnels of ocean liners in their berths. To your left, a skyscraper garden flourished, the Empire State Building a deco fountain rising from its center. Amid the architectural profusion a giant fuel storage tank proclaimed GAS HEATS BEST.

Then the elevated ended; the Simca descended into a shady jungle of bumpy cobblestones. Along Canal Street your father parked. Gripping your hand he led you from one industrial surplus shop to another, foraging parts for his inventions. The faces that crowded the sidewalks were like the baubles on a Christmas tree. There were few dogs and fewer children. The city was a place for grown-ups.

From Canal Street you walked to Chinatown, where you ducked into shops packed with lacquered trays and jade carvings. There the streets smelled of fish. In one of those shops, your father bought you a carved wooden box. (I still have it; it sits on a bookcase next to the desk where I write). In Chinatown the plethora of street signs held you spellbound, transformed into adornments by virtue of being illegible. They clung there, butterflies caught in a lightless tangle of fire escapes and utility lines.

In Greenwich Village the boutiques teemed with trinkets, boxes, beads, and reeked of incense. The city was a colossal museum of objects divided into galleries according to periods and styles. Its purpose: to amuse you.

You returned to the Simca and drove back uptown, stopping for lunch at Schrafft’s, then on to Manganaro’s Italian Import Store to buy your mother some parmesan cheese, the jagged hunk broken off a heavy golden wheel. Then up West End Avenue to Ninety-sixth Street, where your father parked the Simca not far from your hotel. After checking in, you and your father rode the subway back downtown.

It was mid-September, but the subway platform still hoarded summer heat. The station’s dim lighting gleamed off its innumerable tiles. A man in a dark gray suit leaned against a pillar. Others stooped over the tracks. None said a word. You obeyed the unwritten law by which New Yorkers pretend to ignore each other. A muffled roar heralded the subway train’s arrival. The roar grew so deafening you plugged your ears. Then the train squealed to a stop and its doors slid open.

Clinging to straps, you and your papa careened underneath the city, the subterranean world a murky blur punctuated by lustrous stations whose waiting faces looked on in envy while you roared by on express tracks. You rode the subway to the Battery, where gulls wheeled over the ferry that you rode to the Statue of Liberty. Then back uptown to Union Square, where you jumped over the set of iron teeth that stretched to fill the platform gap. Then up a maze of latticed stairways into the dimming dusk.

From there you walked to the colossal pinball machine known as Times Square. In the settling darkness the lurid lights sold everything from Pepsi-Cola to convertible sofas. A giant Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko blew smoke rings into the electrified dusk. At an establishment called Nedick’s you ordered two frankfurters with paper cups of papaya juice and watched traffic and pedestrians go by.

From Times Square you rode a taxi back to the hotel. Of all the city’s features, the Hotel Paris was your favorite, a wedding-cake-shaped building of garnet colored brick topped by a crenelated turret, with a tall flagpole reaching farther up into the sky. The lobby was made of pink marble, with a mirrored dining room adjacent to it and an old-fashioned caged elevator whose diminutive operator wore her flame-red hair in an immense beehive. She let you man the controls, a courtesy for which you would never forget her. It had to be done just right or the floors wouldn’t line up. She placed her brown hand over yours, its warm grip guiding. At every floor, the elevator’s caged doors opened to different hallway carpeting, arabesques of brilliant color whose elaborate intricacies mirrored the teeming chaos outdoors.

Like all the Paris’s rooms, yours was small and stuffy. It stank of the previous occupant’s cigarettes, which was okay with you. You accepted the smell as part of the city —your father’s city, so it seemed to you, as if he had laid every brick and cobblestone and built every skyscraper. As he unpacked his suitcase you watched, mesmerized. A suit, two pair each of socks and underwear, a can of foot powder, his battered shaving brush, his safety razor, a shoehorn, a necktie.

The necktie fascinated you most. You had seen it before, many times, hanging in your papa’s closet back home. But in that hotel room it took on an entirely new aspect. With its paisley lemon drops against a maroon background, it was no longer just your papa’s tie. It was his New York City tie.

That tie became the city for you, as did the stale smell of that hotel room, and the gaudy hallway carpeting, and the black elevator operator, and the passenger ships snug in their berths, and the GAS HEATS BEST slogan on a the side of a fuel storage tank that could have been the imperative of an almighty God. It was all part of the city that belonged to him, to your inventor papa, who’d invented it for you, his son.

About Peter Selgin

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Life Goes to the Movies, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and several children’s books. His memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize. His latest novel, The Water Master, won the William Faulkner Society Prize, selected by Random House Senior Editor Will Murphy. His work has won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, the Dana Award, six Best American Essay notable essay citations, and two selections for the Best American series. A second memoir, The Inventors, is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books in April of 2016. He teaches at Antioch University’s MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.
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