Living in Manhattan, our modes of transportation varied from walking, which we did often, biking, taking buses or subways, and the rare treat of haling a cab.
There was more than one type of cab but the best were the large Checkered Cabs for these had pull down stools on which I could easily perch, separate from the broad and far more comfortable seats in the rear.
Of course this was before seatbelts were mandatory and getting away with such ridiculous and dangerous designs in vehicles was not frowned upon then as much as they are now.
We also were not required to wear helmets so, when my mother took me out on her bike, I had nothing to protect me if we were in an accident. Not at all like Rerun in the early Peanuts strips where he is sitting on the back of his mother’s bike as she goes about her daily tasks. No doubt, this was the easiest way for my mother to get us around when we had to go further than usual and certainly cheaper than taking a cab, especially one of those cool checkered ones. However, bear in mind that she was dashing through the streets of Manhattan which has never been the most tolerant when it comes to drivers and cyclists.
One time my mother was driving along with me behind her when a woman in a car cut her off, nearly knocking us and the bike over. “You stupid fucking bitch,” she shouted. From behind her she heard me say, “Oh Momma, you mustn’t say stupid.”
You see, she had taught me that “stupid” is a bad word and one must never use it but had never explained that there are other bad words. Which is why I thought, at the age of three, that when I dropped a dinner plate and it shattered on the wood floor, I should say “Shit fuck.” After all, I’d hear my mother say it often enough any time she dropped something and it broke.
Usually, if we were unable to walk from where we lived to where we wanted to be, we would take a bus or the subway. My mother says that the reason I have such an excellent sense of direction is because I often found myself standing beside her somewhere in Queens. She was usually good about getting us where we wanted to be but when she got it wrong, she didn’t just end up taking us to the east side of Manhattan when we wanted to be on the west side but she would lose us on another borough of the city altogether. I somehow knew how we ended up where we were and how to get us where we ought to be.
No doubt she came to rely a great deal on my ability to get us home.
If I loved most to climb into the large rear seat of a Checkered cab, I also enjoyed taking the bus, especially at night on a clear, full moon night. As we rode along, I would watch as the moon followed me, convinced that it was there for me and me alone. I suspect most only children are narcissists and I don’t recall that my imagination included the thought that anyone else had as much attraction that the moon would shine its love with the same reliable commitment. A row of buildings would hide it from me and then there it would be, when a parking lot interjected itself between, a moon large and bright, able to glow at night even when the stars were rarely able to give a shimmer.
Sitting beside my mother, I would pull her hand in my lap, palm up. One by one I would unfurl her fingers until her hand lay there stretched out flat. Then, I would curl each digit, beginning with the thumb, until I had created a fist. I would repeat, opening and closing her hand, tracing the lines in her palm, measuring the tininess of my hand against her own, finding an endless treasure of distractions at the end of her arm until it was time to stand up and ring the bell telling the driver we were ready to get off at our stop down the street from where we lived.
A favorite story of my mother’s is a time when I was being a hellion, a three-year-old who simply would not sit still although she had already demanded I sit, especially when the bus was moving. When the bus next stopped she reached out, grabbed me by shoulders and lifted me up before dumping me unceremoniously in the seat beside her as she said “Sit.”
To her surprise, I stayed in my seat, unmoving. Staring at the passengers as they dropped their tokens into the machine beside the driver. One tall blond man, young with longish hair, was walking toward us and then sat on the other side of me. I continued to stare at him and when he finally looked at me I breathlessly said, “Hello people.”
That year my mother sent a Christmas card with a picture of me and “Hello People” at the bottom. I wish she had kept a copy but none exists but she shares that story as an example of my innate flirtation, a personality trait that must lie encoded somewhere on my DNA.
The most common mode of transportation, naturally, was walking, a viable choice in Manhattan where one could easily walk from doorway to supermarket to laundromat to a coffee shop without walking a mile. Most of my childhood, I lived within walking distance of a library and a bookstore and I didn’t take a bus to school until I was twelve.
Although I have no recollection of it, my mother walked me to preschool, where she had lied about my age to get me into the school earlier than I would have been allowed otherwise. One time I remember there was a flood but what caused this flood I cannot say. It was dark, so perhaps a blackout. Or my memory could be merging more than one memory into another, a water main break one day and a blackout another. Either way, I remember a man helping us maneuver through the darkness, using a flashlight. I remember wading through water that whorled around my tiny feet as I waded through thigh high darkness.
I don’t even know for certain that there was a flood and this is not some vivid dream I carried into my reality, as I did the goose stepping soldiers that I worried would one day knock down our door and take my mother away forever, soldiers in dark uniforms and shiny black boots. A fear reinforced by the sound of blood pulsing in my ear pressed into my pillow. Even now when I hear my blood pulsing in my ear I have to move my head before the panic rises.
Always, my greatest fear was that my mother would disappear, be taken from me or leave me behind somewhere and yet one time she did lose me in a store. I hasten to interject that my favorite thing to do when we were in some department store shopping for clothes, I would happily weave in and out of the low hanging dresses and coats, pressing my face into the wool or velvet, the silk or pleated sheer fabrics with lettuce ruffles. She thought I was close and wandered off while I played hide and seek by myself, exploring new textures with my cheeks and hands.
One of the store clerks discovered me and asked me where my parents were. I looked around unalarmed and realized my mother wasn’t there. The young woman took me on her shoulders so I could have a better view of the floor of the store but I didn’t see my mother anywhere.
As it turns out, my mother was on another floor, completely oblivious to the fact that I was still on the previous floor. As soon as I saw her I announced “There she is. Hi Momma.” She was mortified; the store clerk probably assumed she was a negligent. I was fine, was having fun and was now reunited with my missing mother.