My Father’s Hat

by

02/04/2002

E 42nd St & Park Ave, New York, NY 10017

Neighborhood: Midtown

Fresh off the train from Westfield, New Jersey, our family stood on the corner of 42nd Street and Park Avenue. Exhilarated by the fact that his breath was suddenly visible, my ordinarily quiet seven-year-old brother James began to speak loudly and quickly, pushing air from his lungs in great hyperbolic gushes. I followed suit.

Soon the shivering began, and we incorporated that into the grand production. Before long we were gasping and shuddering with seizure-like intensity. The shivers were composed of equal parts physiological necessity and dumb animal excitement. Brrr! It’s cold! Brrr! Here we are! In New York! What happens next?

Drunk on winter air and unfamiliar urbanity, the two of us orbited uncertainly in concentric circles. Although mildly dizzy, I soon developed what I imagined to be a streetwise swagger, and tried not to gawk at the tall buildings. James, swaddled in a bright blue down parka, stared and breathed with such puffed-up intensity that I imagined him rising up high above the street, while I remained behind and watched, anchored to the pavement by my coat. The coat had belonged to my grandmother–it was scratchy wool, heavy, and hung from my shoulders like a punishment.

My parents stood still, their heads cocked toward each other as they stared at a laminated map provided by my grandfather. I was surprised that they seemed so lost. This was their city, after all. Or so they’d told us in countless stories, about my grandfathers’ commutes into the city from New Jersey (my father’s father was an executive at Esso Oil, my mother’s vice president of Gibbs and Cox, a naval engineering company), about going to Yankees games, and later, about going to Columbia. Yet there they were, huddled together, puzzling over a map as though it were some kind of Zen koan.

My mother and father had moved to Delaware from New York when I was three years old. Growing up, I had the nagging sense that by leaving Manhattan my parents had come down in the world–in more than just a geographical sense–and that somehow I was partly to blame. I gazed regretfully at my mother, who was neatly enveloped in the usual black something-or-other. My father was wearing a forest-green knit hat that poofed up in the center, one of those hats that virtually shouted “tourist.”

I had reached the age at which one becomes simultaneously ashamed of and endeared by one’s parents’ awkwardnesses–the desire to shield them from ridicule doing battle with the desire for large amounts of ridicule to be heaped upon them. The late December wind whipped through us, the cold making us feel like visitors in our own skins–what’s this, a cheek? An ear? I imagined my too-big nose freezing and dropping from my face to shatter on the sidewalk. An icicle nose.

Skyscrapers loomed like Druids, Salvation Army missionaries rang bells and Ho-ho-ho’ed for donations. With each icy gust of wind, a complex, smoky urban stench tickled our nostrils. Later my mother would tell us that this was the smell of the “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” we’d heard about in a Johnny Mathis Christmas song.

In a bid to distance myself from the dowdy tourists standing several feet away, hunched over maps and attempting to pose as my parents, I affected a commanding nonchalance. When I gawked it was with the utmost subtlety–a knowing sideways glance, an appraising arch of the brow–the pretense that I, a wizened 11-year-old, was showing my seven-year-old brother around. Restless to experience the city, I approached the tourists and brazenly suggested we choose a direction and start walking.

My brother stood next to me, grasping his lower lip between thumb and forefinger and pulling it out as far as possible. Such a whirl of activity buzzed around us that I felt our stagnancy was in violation of some cardinal New York Rule. At the same time, even though we were by all appearances stationary, it felt as though we were already in motion, as though we had no choice. The pavement seemed to pulse beneath our feet, the air eddying so that we were buffeted ever so slightly in this and that direction. Even the skyscrapers appeared to be swaying.

I looked at my father, first at his hat, then at his shoes, the scuffed brown Oxfords of a college professor. He appeared dwarfed by the concrete and glass that surrounded him. For the first time I sensed that he was not who I thought he was. He had long seemed remote, irritable, sad. But standing there, with his green hat poofing and his shoulders hunched, it occurred to me that he was not so much standing as he was steeling himself for whatever was next.

And I suddenly became convinced that my father was about to be murdered by someone wearing a serious, fashionable hat. My heartbeat sped up and I felt a little dizzy. How to move him inside, out of danger? Any minute now, some stealthy criminal would round the corner, some thug would mow him down with a semiautomatic or bash him over the head with a tire iron or some other unthinkable instrument of destruction. And I would just stand here thinking, I knew it would happen, why didn’t I do something?

Just then my mother turned and started walking. The three of us followed, my father first, then my brother and I. We bobbed along in tight formation, like military ducks. Soon we came to a restaurant. We stepped inside, ordered cheesecake and cocoa, coffee for my parents. My father’s glasses steamed up. When he removed them, the rims of his eyes were red and watery. I looked outside, through the fogged up windows, and wondered where, exactly, the city had gone.

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