Yesterday was a really beautiful day in New York, hitting that near-perfect balance of sunny warmth and early-autumn nip-in-the-air, so my wife Claire figured that the afternoon would be a good one for a nature walk or some such thing. I had to go to Manhattan in the early part of the day to interview the director Olivier Assayas; the plan was that Claire would meet me at Lincoln Center and we'd head up to Fort Tryon Park. By the time we got there it would be a bit on the late side for a visit to the Cloisters, so we'd trek around the park itself. But on the A train uptown, I had a sudden inspiration.
"You know what might be cool? We could walk across the George Washington Bridge into Fort Lee. I could show you the place where the first house I lived in used to be. I haven't seen it in years. And I bet the Hudson's gonna look beautiful." Claire, being an agreeable, adventurous, and spontaneous sort, said let's go for it, and so we got out at 175th Street and walked out of the bus terminal there to the bridge itself.
The day was still gorgeous as it approached four; a wind was kicking up a little. The view off of the bridge was spectacular throughout. Back when I was a kid, I used to be terribly, morbidly afraid of heights, to the extent that a walk across such a structure would have been inconceivable; indeed, family drives across the bridge, with my eminently reliable father at the wheel, generally filled me with a kind of mute horror growing up. But I had, after many years, finally grown up and out, more or less, of this neurosis. Enough so that I not only could do this, but that I could enjoy doing it; not quite enough, though, that I could feel quite as comfortable standing so close to the railing that separates the pavement from oblivion as Claire did.
We made the longish, or so it seemed, way across. I groused about the douchebag bicyclists who couldn't keep to their side of the walkway and seemed to act as if they owned the whole thing regardless. Claire protested that they weren't actually doing anything offensive. I continued to maintain a generally poor attitude about it.
"I'm kind of surprised that there's not some kind of mini-shrine somewhere out here, some flowers or something," Claire said.
I had forgotten, when I suggested this walk, the news that had come out earlier in the week, about the poor Rutgers kid who'd killed himself by jumping from this bridge after an online humiliation. As it happened, shortly after I was reminded of it, we passed by one of the manned security checkpoints of the bridge and I thought about what a kind of lousy job the guy tending it had, and gave him what I meant as a sympathetic nod.
"I guess if someone had, it might have gotten blown away or something. I don't imagine that it would be permitted," I said to Claire.
On the other side of the bridge, I tried to figure out the best way to get to where I wanted to show Claire. We bickered a little about street crossing; I made some remark wherein I balked about being spoken to like a third-grader. Eventually we got to the hilly nook of Sylvan Road and Hudson Terrace, close to the dead end I was looking for. We came upon an astro-turfed running track and went through the gate of its fence. It was the back of Fort Lee High School; I saw Lemoine Avenue a bit ahead. A handful of yards later, there we were:
I got out my cell phone and called my mother. "You're never going to guess where we are," I said, and sure enough, she did not.
"What was the deal with that show that was here, that winter pageant or whatever it was, where Daddy was dressed up as a snowman and he was singing and these other kids were throwing snowballs at him, and I got really upset and cried because I didn't know it was part of an act?" I asked her.
"I don't know what the show was and I don't remember the song," she said. "I think it was a Sinatra song. And you know Mary, you remember her, who I went to Florida with last year? She sang a duet with him in that show, too. You really remember that?"
"Because you were only about two years old then."
"Well that really must be my first memory, or something like that. How traumatic."
When we got around the front of the building and into the parking lot on the other side everything seemed to open up for me, and I recalled where everything else was, and had been. I pointed out to Claire the three houses on North Hudson that the initial owners had just refused to sell back when the developers came; one of them belonged to the family of a woman who's still my mom's closest friend; I don't know who owns it now, but I chuckled gratefully at the family's cussedness. The house where my grandparents on my mother's side lived, along with my mother and aunt and uncle, and where I and my father also lived for a few months after I was born, is long gone; a supermarket stands where it stood. "This used to be a Food Emporium; and then I guess it got taken over by the A&P," I said to Claire as we went inside.
"It got taken over by a Pathmark first," some guy arranging carts who had overheard us commented. Always with the corrections. In any event, according to the calculations of my mother's brother, checkout aisle eight of the market was the exact spot of the front porch of the house was. The front porch where I'd sit with my grandfather, who was confined to a wheelchair because of MS, and eat the blackberries that I'd picked in the field across the street, the field that had been paved over for the erection of the town's first A&P, which was now a bank. So to checkout aisle eight we went. And stood, and were not particularly inspired. And we left and headed for Main Street. Everything seemed so much smaller than it had when I was a kid. And I thought of something that happened some years later, after my family had moved from Fort Lee to Cliffside Park, and then from Cliffside Park to Dumont.
When my father had been a kid, his family moved to Spain for several years, because his father had a work project over there. Among the things my dad had brought back with him was a beautiful brown fringed suede jacket that he had, of course, grown out of in his adulthood. I had coveted this jacket, and when I was eight, even though it was still a bit too big for me, I had decided to wear it to school on the first day the weather warranted. And so, on an early fall day not unlike the one I'm writing this on, I proudly, goofily put it on, and walked over to Seltzer School. On the line in the parking lot where the third graders assembled to enter homeroom, one of the many fellow students with whom I was not friendly—because I was awkward, boisterous, bookwormy, not very good at sports; in a word, "weird"—came up to me and said, "Hey Glen Campbell. Nice jacket." And he pulled a couple of the fringes off of it.
And a couple of this kid's friends thought they'd try it too. And I thought to protest a bit, and a teacher overlooking the line thought to make a perfunctory admonition that this activity ought to be knocked off, but the fix, as it were, was in. By the end of the day about a third of the jacket's fringes would have been removed, and the jacket hung back in the closet, where it would stay until it would be lost in another move.
Walking back over the bridge into Manhattan, Claire's phone rang; it was her mom, and she figured she'd take it. I took out my Blackberry, got on Twitter, and re-engaged in a rather silly argument with someone who seemed to think he was going to talk me out of liking a highly-praised movie that he happens to think poorly of. He seemed to misconstrue a Groucho Marx line I threw at him—the one about buying back an introduction—and that, it appeared, ended that. I got irritated with myself, with the noise I and we willingly subject ourselves to, with a bunch of other things, and I took the picture that's at the top of this post and sent it to my Twitter feed and wrote something to the effect of "Stop yelling at me while I'm trying to walk over the George Washington Bridge." Again, not thinking, not remembering. One of my Twitter followers wrote back: "Don't jump." Gallows humor, we used to call it.
I don't think the internet killed Tyler Clementi, because random, vicious cruelty was around long before there was an internet, and may well outlive the internet. But on the other hand, if your first reaction to Tyler Clementi's death is to reflexively defend the internet, maybe we shouldn't have lunch anytime soon.
Coming off of the ramp from the bridge on the Manhattan side, Claire looked behind at me (we had to walk single file now, to make room for the precious bikers) and motioned that I ought to be careful, indicating a woman who was standing near the entry to the ramp, crouched over. I put my Blackberry away and caught up to Claire, taking a place by her side and walking her away. "When I first caught sight of her I thought she might have been hunched over crying or something," Claire explained. "But then I saw she was shooting up." The real world.