Quick Requiem at a Red Light

After landing on Long Island and renting a car, I’m lost within ten minutes of leaving the airport parking lot. I didn’t think I’d need a GPS in my homeland, but apparently I do. One town just slides into another and looks exactly like the last one did. I feel like there used to be space between them that let you know you were changing zip codes. Okay, it’s been a while.

It makes me wonder how teenagers keep school rivalries going these days. In the Class of ’68, we referred to kids from Wantagh — three miles away — with a vague, almost mythical, curiosity as if they spoke a different dialect and worshipped at Stonehenge. I’m guessing that’s all over now because kids don’t actually have to see each other anymore to be BFF’s. Maybe kids don’t root for the home team either. Maybe they don’t chant at football games, or even go to football games. We shouted, “We are good! We are great! We’re the Class of ’68!” Our lungs got a workout back then. But we hardly ever used our thumbs the way kids do today.

I finally get my bearings by telling myself that when I get to the corner with Shoe Town on the right and Carvel up ahead on the left, I’ll know where I am. And then I recognize that I’m at that corner, but Shoe Town is gone. It’s a bank now. It’s probably been a bank for years. Maybe it’s not even the original building. I have no idea. When you haven’t lived in your hometown since 1973, things like this happen.

Shoe Town was one of the few perfect things in my pubescent years, and it seems right to mourn its passing as I wait at the red light. Before it came into my life and offered me the anonymity I needed with feet like mine, shoe shopping was a humiliating hell. Before the boxy store on the corner went up, all I had were smarmy salesmen measuring my foot and then sighing and saying, “I’ll see what I can do,” only to come back from that secret room in the back with one box instead of the five or six choices other girls got.

The summer before 6th grade, just before Shoe Town opened, my mother and I went on a fruitless quest to find something in my size (10) that wasn’t a patent-leather stiletto heel designed for a woman three times my age.

After one salesman measured my foot, he looked over at my mother and said, “Well, we don’t have any shoes that will fit her, but I could give you a couple of boxes to take home.”

She pretended to think it wasn’t funny, but later when I overheard her telling the story to my father, I could hear chuckles all around. This is what I was up against until I finally found a shoe store that made sense.

For one thing, Shoe Town was self-serve way before its time, so I could be my own agent. I could also walk there with my friends and spend as much time as I needed to try on every shoe in Size 8 or 9 that looked like it had any chance of fitting my foot and walking a few steps before I’d melt in pain in front of the full length mirrors they had in the corners.

Eventually I’d wander over to the Size 10 rack where I belonged and settle on a pair that didn’t embarrass me too much. Later, in my room, I would rub the 10 from inside the shoes until it was gone. Just in case. I took shoe size very seriously, as if it were a blight on my character.

When you come back to the place where you grew up, it’s all right there, sitting at a red light. Now you remember everything. How good it felt to buy your own shoes and carry them home. How the Carvel Flying Saucer melted in your hand all the way down Jerusalem Avenue. Opening your front door and knowing that roast chicken was for dinner. Your mother humming along to the Ray Conniff Singers on the HiFi. Running up the stairs to your room and trying on your new shoes. And thinking there was no way life would ever change from that day.

So you mourn the passing of a shoe store that was kind to you, and that’s not the weirdest thought you have at the red light. The oddest thing is that you still call this town home.

On Long Island, We Really, Really Loved Our Lawns

Everyone who lived on Hamilton Avenue had children, except for the Markowskis, our next-door neighbors, who owned a series of standard poodles instead, all with the name Claude. The Markowskis weren’t fond of kids playing on their lawn, which is to say the Markowskis weren’t exactly fond of kids. So since there were no fences in those days to show property lines, we just had to be light on our feet during games of Tag or Statue, and we got really good at giving the Markowski’s yard a generous berth, even when running at top speed.

EK_0016

Lots of people in Massapequa were serious about their lawns, maybe because everyone had been transplanted from the city where the concrete in front of your apartment had been public domain. That could be unfortunate, especially when drunks peed on it or young love went bad late at night, and you could be awakened suddenly by screaming and reproach under your window. Once you moved out to Long Island, you actually owned this patch of luscious greenness. Dads mowed lawns with rigorous timing. When someone you were playing with did something to anger you, one of the best responses you had was, “Get off my property!”

For years on our school route home, a grandfather on Doris Place stood like a sentinel at the corner of his yard after school let out. If our feet veered in his direction, he would yell, “Get off my lawn!” For that reason alone, Mikey Gernhart made a point of his shoe going over the line Mondays through Fridays. This house was the only one in the neighborhood at the time with a built-in pool, which signified, of course, that the man was a millionaire. I vowed that if I ever had a million dollars, I would spend more time having fun and much less time screaming about my grass.

I spent my whole childhood figuring out the most efficient ways to avoid Mrs. Markowski’s lawn. I got pretty good at staying out of her way, using my Dodge Ball skills of always hugging the outer boundary when possible. When cornered by her, I became adept at her brand of small talk, which usually began, “Linda, I have a bone to pick with you,” and quickly got around to the latest time I stepped on her grass or made Claude bark. She didn’t spend much time outside, which was a good thing for us, and I have The Guiding Light, As the World Turns, and the American tobacco industry to thank for her disdain of the outdoors.

lawn  My mother was a big believer of being neighborly, so when she’d say, “You know, it wouldn’t kill you kids to help Mrs. Markowski carry in her groceries once in a while,” we did it reluctantly, though the inside of her house was always dark because of heavy drapes at every window, and the crushing smell of her Lucky Strikes and her husband’s cigars made us gasp.

Many years later, when Mrs. Markowski became a widow, I was long gone from Hamilton Avenue, with a husband and kids of my own. My parents began inviting her over for holidays because there’s just so much a poodle named Claude can do for you at Thanksgiving. So I’d see Mrs. Markowski a few times a year, and she got to know my own children in a way I’d been shut out of, meaning she didn’t yell at them or constantly worry about what they were doing to her lawn. She bought them little gifts she found at the Dollar Store, and they were perpetually charmed by that.

She still dyed her hair a shocking burnt-ochre color that gave way to a few inches of white at the part when she didn’t keep it up, which was pretty much never, not even for holidays. She still swore like a sailor after her first martini, but she also smiled more, usually after her second. Lawn care had been given over to a neighborhood boy who did “a crappy job” according to her, but he kept his job since she had cataracts by then and couldn’t see the bald spots and the crabgrass.

When she died, she had no living relatives and had outlived the last of the Claudes. By the time that happened, I was 47. I’d recently been divorced, had three teenagers, and was winging it financially. There’s something about the phrase winging it that implies there was a carefree section of my life that year. There was not.

A few weeks after her death, my phone rang at work.

“This is Lawrence Slezak,” a man said. “I represent the estate of Miriam Markowski.” The lawyer told me I was named in her will. She had left me more money than I’d made the year before. I had no inkling this would happen, and the lawyer was more than patient with me as I got my bearings. Really, I just babbled in his ear for a long time. I got up from my desk and started telling a friend what had just happened.

“And you weren’t related to her?” she asked.

“Not exactly.” It seemed a funny answer but the right one.

“You were related to her?”

“I guess you had to be there,” I said.

“Where?”

I meant the 1950s.

The Incontinence Aisle? You’re Welcome!

On the back of the women’s room stall at the airport, at just the right height for reading, is an advertisement for a new adult diaper. I commend the marketing genius who put this here because I’m betting that ¾ of the women sitting down at this moment in this bathroom fit the demographic. And I know from a lifetime of being every corporation’s target audience that — for a few more years at least — Baby Boomers will still be where the numbers are. We’re the women who never want to pee once we’re on the plane (the logistics being just too cumbersome), so we put off that last trip to the bathroom until minutes before boarding. We’re the ones who have peeing on our minds, so it makes sense that we actually read the ad in a women’s room stall.

I study the woman in the photograph, who has clearly never taken a bite of red meat in her life and has to be a former runway model turned yoga practitioner, without a wrinkle or a gray hair. And no surprise that she is half of a great looking couple, on a beach. They are holding hands and skipping along, their bare feet remarkably four inches off the ground.

It’s the perfect message, and this marketing wunderkind saw me coming: You can still look like a million bucks, and there’s no way you’ll pee down your leg when you cough! And as if that’s not enough, later you and a ridiculously handsome man will check into an ocean-front room where he won’t be able to take his eyes off you. You, my dear, still got it. You, my dear, will have it forever.

Diaper or not, I want to be her. I’m sucked right into the message, and then I smile at the last phrase, at the bottom: Located in the Incontinence Aisle. I wasn’t aware that incontinence now had its own aisle, but I know my generation had everything to do with that. Incontinence was nothing special until we started to gush when we sneezed. You’re welcome, America.

As I board my plane, I begin to wonder how much time I have left before I have to shop in the Incontinence Aisle. I’ve been using the phrase at my age for a while now, and that’s probably not a good sign. I think I use it to punctuate a statement that might not have enough gravitas on its own, which makes me sound like quite a bore, also not a good sign.

I do notice that I’m repeating stories with alarming regularity lately. Even when I take a second to ask myself, Have I already told this person my adorable story that took place 30 years ago? Either I don’t wait for my own answer, or I can’t remember if I did or not, so I launch into it, because, really, it’s my best story of all time: I walked to my aerobics class, all the way across the entire gym floor at the health club I joined the year after giving birth to my third baby. I noticed men looking at me and nudging their friends. I was getting a lot of attention, just by walking through the club. I was thrilled that they were noticing how well I’d whipped my saggy postpartum body into shape and naughtily delighted at how much they all seemed to want me.

When I got to class at the far end of the building, the instructor came rushing over to me, saying, “Oops, you’ve got toilet paper coming out of your leotard and it’s dragging behind you!”

Lately when I’ve told this story, I see a little impatient nodding going on, because my listener has heard it all before and is trying to save me the trouble of finishing. I believe I’ve now told this story to every living person I’ve ever met, though I can’t be sure, so I’m going to keep telling it, just in case.

This happens, too: I’m driving in a perfectly orderly and cautious way and come to a four-way stop sign, where there is a 30-ish dad in his SUV, waiting. He spots me and begins waving that I should go. The first few times this happened, I just thought I was on the receiving end of some respect-your-elders politeness, and I went on my way.

But today it happened again, and this time I got to see the dad’s face. He looked rather frantic, the way he might if maybe I were about to drive a team of wild horses through the intersection and he was thinking of how he was going to save his children.

I wanted to open my window and shout, “Hey, I’m still an excellent driver!” But this is what my father said to the Police after he mowed down an entire hedgerow in front of their condominium in Florida. So I did go first at the intersection, but I also gave the SUV dad a little thank-you wave, showing off that I could still do two things at once without hitting the fire hydrant on the corner.

There are more signs. They’re subtle but piling up.

I can’t remember the last time I got caught in the rain without an umbrella.

Or ran out of aluminum foil, or dryer sheets, or flour. I stock up on everything.

When I bend down now, I always look around carefully to see if there isn’t something else I should be doing as long as I’m down there. I hope that the cheerleaders from high school also have to do this now.

I’m not sure I’ll ever to remember to cough or sneeze into my elbow because every time I feel one coming, I still hear my mother saying “Cover your mouth!”

I’ve never taken a successful selfie.

I don’t know what Uber is and don’t care enough to find out.

And somehow I totally missed the demise of phone booths. One day they all just seemed to have disappeared from the landscape.

In his later years, every morning and every evening, my grandfather wrote down the weather in the little boxes of the free calendar he got from his newspaper boy. I’m happy to report that I’m not even close to doing that, but the world does seem to be spinning so much faster than it used to.

And for anyone keeping score (not me!) the weather sucks today.