I went to Penn Station to snap a picture or two and perhaps in the process imbibe a feeling for my grandmother, Bubby, who went there ten years ago (this month) to catch a train…
I didn’t know Bubby growing up. She and my dad had a fight when I was 2 and didn’t speak for the next 15 years. Bubby lived out in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in the same apartment my dad grew up in. We lived in California, 3000 miles away. Their differences were easily maintained by the distance and Bubby was rarely discussed. She never sent cards or gifts on birthdays or holidays and was absent from family gatherings. For all intents and purposes, Bubby didn’t exist.
Then came that summer before my senior year in high school when my parents took a fabulous Honolulu adventure tour. Sitting on a bench at a shopping mall in Waikiki, my father casually glanced at the squat old lady sitting next to him and realized he was sitting next to his mother.
They went out for a coffee, and during this brief, fleeting moment of détente, decided it was time for Bubby to pay us a visit.
Several months later she arrived on our doorstep in Los Angeles, swearing about the morons at the airlines and the bastard from the shuttle service who dropped her bag. She ranted and raved, and for the first time in my life, I saw my father shut down in a conversation. She actually rendered him mute. As a rebellious teenager and my father’s chief rival in a game he controlled, I was immediately enthralled by this.
"She’s a random noise generator," my father whined to my mother several days later, helpless, after an afternoon of sight-seeing. "We’re driving along and all of a sudden, out of now where, she starts telling me about five different people, using pronouns to describe each one of them. I don’t have a clue who or what she was talking about. She wouldn’t shut up. I almost drove into on-coming traffic."
It was borscht belt mayhem and great theater. But more than that, she solved my secret, unsolved mystery. She was the half man, half monkey of me. No wonder my dad said "fuck" every other word and flew into those fits of loud, gibbering fury; I suddenly understood why my father was part baboon. He’s been raised by one. My grandmother Bubby, the 4’10", fire-breathing, Yiddishe maniac.
Moments after she boarded the plane (in a wheelchair, complaining) headed back for Brooklyn, my dad came down from the proverbial ceiling and swore he wouldn’t be seeing Bubby again any time soon. But her visit left an indelible impression on me and I was determined to stay in touch.
When I left for college I began calling her every several months for an aural transfusion of her vintage rants. I’d start her off with something provocative. "Hey, Bubby, how’s life out there in New York?"
"What kind of horseshit question is that? How’s New York? It’s a fuck’n sewer. That whore Reagan and his little pimp Bush. Those bastards are fucking everything up. Haven’t you heard all their promises and lies?!? Do you think they care? They don’t care!""
After college, I took a road trip from Santa Cruz to New York, eager to see Bubby and finally catch a glimpse of the "shitbox" my dad grew up in. The shitbox he credited for his prodigious, meteoric ascension through the ranks of academia and into the wealthy suburb I called home. I wanted to see the view out their living room window: the famous Brick Wall of Bensonhurst.
"When I was 8 years old," the old man said one night, during one of his own patented, inebriated rants, "I looked out that shitbox window and I stared at that fuck’n wall and I thought to myself, I gotta get the hell out of here. I gotta get the hell outta here, no matter what it takes."
Ten years later, as a senior at Brooklyn Tech, he had the highest college boards in the state of New York and a full academic scholarship to MIT. I wanted to see the wall. I wanted to take a gander at the fold-out couch my dad shared with his brother for 18 years in the living room of their one-bedroom rat-hole. But Bubby nixed the idea. She wasn’t prepared to "entertain." Instead, she suggested we meet at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. "Bubby, you like modern art?!" I was incredulous.
"Are you crazy? Who gives a rat’s ass about modern art?! It’s air-conditioned! You can sit in the nice, cool cafeteria all day and no one bothers you. I’ll bring sandwiches."
She was right: no one bothered us. We sat in the cafeteria for hours while Bubby fulminated about how it was all my dad’s fault they didn’t get along and how it was actually my uncle (the homeless drifter, but that’s another story) who was the real genius of the family. It was my first trip to New York and my first visit to MOMA, and it took some doing, but I finally convinced her we should take a look at the Pop Art exhibition. She reluctantly agreed.
"Jesus Christ would you look at this crap! You got a toothbrush?!" Her loud voice echoed through the wing.
"It’s a Rauschenberg, you realize. He’s a very famous artist. A seminal thinker. A creative genius. This toothbrush isn’t just a toothbrush, Bubby. It’s a concept."
"Oh what a bunch of horseshit. It’s a mess. It looks like your aunt Ida’s living room floor!"
POW! ZAP! KERPLOW! Bubby stole the show, blazing a trail through the gawking crowd like the chrome rocket bumper detail of a 1956 Chevy Bel Air.
Several years later, my great aunt Bea, Bubby’s sister, suggested they move down to Florida to a retirement community in now-famous Broward County. Bubby was game but there was one huge problem. She was an epic pack rat. Her apartment was piled high from floor to ceiling with things she "might need one day, you never know." The thought of moving compelled her to finally consider what to do with my father’s baby carriage or fifty years of newspapers or the 250 thousand sweet&low packets she’d stolen from diners over the years while no one was watching.
Meanwhile, the super had "the shitbox" promised to a comrade. After two years of procrastinating and excruciating indecision, the comrade showed up on Bubby’s doorstep and offered to pack her things for her, for free. The idea repulsed her, but it was an offer she couldn’t refuse. So she grudgingly relented and looked on, disgusted, as "the rat bastard" packed up 350 large boxes of her essential belongings.
"How could I be so stupid to let this stupid Russian bastard bamboozle me into coming in here and packing my things?!? You wouldn’t believe how stupid he is, putting china together with heavy books. Could he be any sloppier."
"Bubby, he’s been working for free for three weeks."
"Nu? He’s getting a wonderful apartment out of the bargain."
"You mean the shitbox?"
"I’ve been BAMBOOZLED!"
And with the last box through the doorway, I imagine Bubby standing in the empty apartment. Overwhelmed by a surreal, stark vision of sudden total emptiness. Since 1921 she hadn’t seen the floor.
A fleeting thought of relief. All her stuff would be waiting for her in Florida. She was finally free from the sewer of New York. All those dark gray buildings, rats and morons.
As she boarded the bus to the station, a spasm of angst ricocheted through her gray matter. Sparks flying. Random images. Poor, scared peasants run screaming through the dirt streets of a burning shtetl. The statue of Liberty monolithic through the railing of a steamship on a freezing cold winter day in 1917. The oppressive smell of wet wool in a crowded room on Ellis Island.
She Arrived at Penn station and elbowed her way through the crowd and checked the time on the board against the time on her watch…panic. She was late. Of course she was late. Those morons never get you there on time. Scurrying past all the blurry faces, remembering…
Her husband languishing on his deathbed with two small children to feed and clothe. And no help from the community either. Those orthodox bastards at the synagogue! She wasn’t good enough for them. She didn’t have enough money for them to care about her welfare! The bastards wouldn’t help a dying man’s family. One of their own. The trash can. The sewer. Down the escalator to the train. To the tunnel. To warm weather 265 days a year and an all-you-can-eat salad bar in an elegantly appointed community center.
A strange warmth inside big dizziness.
"Excuse me, m’am, are you ok?"
There’s her train. Ready to board. Ready to take her away from all this. To that long-awaited tropical paradise.
Someone call an ambulance.
With all the strength she could muster, she muttered her last, dying words to the unsuspecting paramedic: "take your fuck’n hands off of me! I have a train to catch."