The submission requirements for a publication called Underwater New York directed me to a list of objects found underwater in New York which might inspire me. I didn’t need the list. I saw the name of the publication and when I read the three words, the idea found me. I knew exactly where I was. Wasn’t it odd that some editor in America knew too, where I had been so many years ago.
The story starts as usual in a small mining town in Northern Ontario. My family had arrived at this outpost as refugees from the war in 1948. People didn’t come to Sudbury because of the scenery. They came to find work. My mother parted the green curtains of the Pullman car on the Canadian Pacific Railway and said, “We’ve arrived in Hiroshima.”
It wasn’t that bad. The winters were long but we had leggings. The summers were glorious, we had a lake. Rounded rocks were our landscape, moonscape some said, but my horizons were soon to broaden. The story unfolds as my American cousins came to visit. The rich ones in the family. My stern uncle parked his gold Delta 88 in front of our clapboard house. The neighbours came round to inspect the orangey plates. My aunt Mary said the kids were good ’til Buffalo where she spanked them and they behaved the rest of the way to Sudbury.
“You don’t know how good you have it here,” she would say to my mother. Mary would go to the lake and sleep, while her youngest, Eddy, wandered away in the park. My mother protested, “He’ll get lost.”
“He’ll come back,” said Mary, turning her other cheek on the blanket, and he did. My mother went home to wash the windows.
In the early 60′s I was twelve. We had moved to Toronto. There was a one strip airport in Malton, nearby. My father had started a new business, a gift shop. He bought merchandise from his brother, my stern uncle, who lived in New York.
One summer, my father had to go to New York. It was better if he shopped in person for the new store. The question was how to go – by bus or plane. That first trip I was to join him, to see the sights, to visit the cousins. Whether it was because the bus fare was cheaper than flying, or because both my father and I were afraid to fly that first time, we took the famous “open your lunch with the salami sandwich and can of soda at two a.m. on the New York Thruway” bus.
The first thing that was different about New York was the way my cousins spoke. Brooklynese. “Ma, Ma, the gudjoomah man is here.” And running to the curb, again, “Ma, Ma…………” Then I saw the white truck with letters arced: G O O D H U M O R I CE C R E A M. Oh. My cousin would walk me four blocks to 13th Avenue where we visited the shoe store.
“This is my cousin from Canada.”
“Is that where all the Eskimos live?” asked the salesman.
It wasn’t that funny. Thirteenth Avenue was where I got my hair straightened for the first time. Relaxed was the word. Like Diana Ross. Friday morning my aunt Mary and I shopped for fruit. We walked and carried the shopping home in a mesh bag. After we washed the fruit and put in in the fridge, we had lunch. “Don’t dry the dishes,” she said. (Women’s Lib, first time.) “Get the beach stuff from the basement.”
We would walk to the train, climb the stairs and take the El to Coney Island. You could peer into someone’s apartment as the train rolled by. Watch them watching TV. Down the stairs, walk the hot pavement, past the radios blaring in the street, arrive at the beach. Here we would lie on the sand, fall asleep amid the noise, and cool off after in the surf.
That was the summer my aunt took me to the Statue of Liberty, her favourite place in the city she said. She was a Holocaust survivor, but in America, she was free. We would go to Radio City Music Hall. I came again in winter and saw the Rockettes dressed up as Christmas trees. The windows of the apartment buildings on Ocean Parkway had more menorahs than I had ever seen. When we went to the City, we took the train. Each had a letter. Ours was F. If you remembered which letter to take, you were pretty much okay. Sometimes we would go to my uncle’s shop on Canal Street. We would stand in line and eat at the Garden Restaurant. Tuna fish on rye. Coffee. Sometimes we would shop at Macy’s. I loved my aunt’s ease wherever we went. She’d like to try that perfume, pointing. “Oh, my dear,” said the saleslady, “that fragrance is much too sophisticated for you.” I can still hear my aunt laughing. Gales. Under the ground at one subway stop, we are waiting a long time. Maybe the train is stuck. Who knows? There are other things in this city that are broken that no-one cares about. There are men lying on the floor in a subway stop called the Bowery and I look at my aunt wondering, shouldn’t we stop and help, but she takes my hand and we pick our way over the bodies.
I am with my aunt. She’s not upset. Underground. Waiting. In the train. I sit near the window, which is filthy. I am staring at a wall. Sitting for a long time. There is a crack in the wall and water is coming out of it. I point with my finger, questioningly. “We’re under the river,” she says. Whoever heard of such a thing? She repeats: “Under the river.” She is aloof. The river is running quite fast into the subway and no one but me seems to notice or care. Certainly not my aunt. Well, if she doesn’t care, I don’t care either, but this child from the rounded rocks has travelled all this way with the salami stink and soda spray upsetting a lot of people on the bus. She is sitting under a leaking river in New York. Who thought this could be possible and who would ever imagine that fifty years later, some editor in America wants to hear about it.
My aunt is over ninety now. She was sick last year, but is feeling better. Lots of pain. Degenerative disc. She still goes to work at her husband’s shop, which her son now runs. I call her to ask her what was the name of the stop. She goes way back in her mind.
“Why do you want to know”, she asks. I tell her I might write a story.
“Can I read it?”
“Haven’t written it yet.”
“Oh. East Broadway,” she says. “Under the river.”