The afternoon of January 22, 2002, found me heading west on 42nd Street.
I knew I was heading west on 42nd, thanks to the grid maps I had studied for an hour before leaving the hotel. Other than that, I hadn’t a clue. But I knew I had to get out there and see where the city would take me.
Earlier, I’d assured my sister, Jan, as nonchalantly as possible that I’d find stuff to do while she stayed at the hotel in a seminar. I couldn’t tell her how significant this day was for me, even though I’d had it circled on my calendar for weeks and earmarked in my mind nearly forever. I couldn’t tell her what really brought me to New York until I found out myself.
I could have been afraid, or a least a little more cautious. After all, here I was, alone in New York City, not knowing downtown from uptown. What if I got lost? What if I was being too trusting and someone took advantage of me? What if the unthinkable happened again and suddenly everyone started fleeing from the terror?
“No!” I declared from my hotel window to the bustling sidewalks below. “Not on my special day.” So I left the “what ifs” behind with the grid maps and the guides I’d tossed on the bed, and set off on foot.
From the first step, I was bent on my mission. In each storefront, each passing face, each smell and sound, I searched for clues about why I’d come. Outwardly, though, I’m sure I looked like your average, happy-go-lucky, wandering tourist. I gaped and gawked. I stopped every half block to try to capture everything in a camera lens not nearly big enough. I was intent, yet oblivious – so caught up in my giant adventure that I didn’t realize I’d reached the heart of it till I got to 42nd and Broadway.
“Times Square!” I breathed. It was familiar, of course, from the backdrop built from movies and magazines I carried in my mind’s eye. Yet the flow of people, the tempo of traffic and neon, the news-as-it-happens just barely contained in and around the buildings I recognized as symbols more than structures, still hit me full force and left me breathless. It was like being 12 again and knowing I was finally going to the fair, but not really believing it till I rounded the corner and saw the roller coaster looming above the trees.
I watched and walked and gawked and studied till my feet went numb. Then I sat in Rockefeller Center feeding the pigeons the last of a pastrami on rye I’d bought at Grand Central Station and stowed since lunchtime. Best sandwich I ever had, I decided, as grand and filled to the brim as that landmark itself. And I had shoved it in my backpack wanting to savor it later like the day’s events, whatever they might be. When the last crust was gone, I looked and listened until the afternoon sun fell on my face from the angle of a rooftop. I sat there even longer, quiet and calm in the busiest place on earth. I was all alone, aware of each breath, in the middle of more people than I’d see again in the course of a year. They all had places to go and, there I was, on a concrete bench in January, just feeling the heartbeat of the city.
“O.K., Mum, you got me here. Now what did you want to show me?”
Like most conversations with my mother, the response did not come immediately. But I always talked anyway, some days more than others, like she was right there. At first, I talked out of anguish, wondering how she could have left me so suddenly. Then I talked out of ego, asking her how I was doing and what she thought of the woman I’d become. Much later, when I learned to hear her talk back, I continued the dialogue out of joy. A song on the radio, someone saying her nickname out of the blue, a special poem reappearing on my birthday – these were her warm whispers, her little ways of telling me I was living the life she’d have chosen if she’d been given the time.
Mum was a Chicago girl who’d spent her adult life in the country. She loved people watching as much as gazing at the sunset from a boat pier. She loved musicals, the flashier the better, but usually had to settle for singing a show tune to herself or seeing a play far from Broadway. And no matter what life would throw at her, she had a jingle or a corny tune to match any circumstance. That instantaneous levity is what I remembered most about my mother, although I strained to recall the actual tunes. It had been too long and, over the years, I’d had to reserve that sacred corner of my mind for just holding onto her basic features and the way she lit up a room.
“Is there something in particular you wanted me to see today?” I asked again as I left my spot on the bench. If there was, and she wanted to show it to me before dark, she’d have to do it soon because I was due back at the hotel to meet my sister. As I proceeded back up Broadway to 42nd Street, I had to remind myself that Mum’s answer would come in its own way and time if I kept my heart open and never for a second let myself doubt that she’d brought me there for a reason.
I was back in the flow of foot traffic again when some college kids asked me to take their picture. I did, and as I handed their camera back, I had a strange urge to take out mine. I had been in that same spot earlier and photographed every collage of billboards and American flags and buildings possible. Still….I turned slowly to take one more look…
I don’t remember how long I stood with my head swiveled back down Broadway. I don’t remember turning full circle to confirm what I saw. And I don’t remember if it brought tears to my eyes before or after my heart began pounding. I was frozen, hand to my mouth, staring at a gold and white billboard, with the energy of the city and my perfect moment buzzing around and through me.
“Off we’re gonna shuffle…Shuffle off to Buffalo,” I read aloud over and over. As I mouthed the words, I felt a shudder of all I ever was and all I ever would be flash up from where I stood in Times Square, up past the skyline and out through my eyes and pounding chest toward that sign. It seemed as though my heart was trying to trace every word till it beat in rhythm to a distant melody. As the words took hold, so, too, did my fondest, most intensely personal memory of my mother.
“C’mon, Mum, show me how to shuffle off to Buffalo,” I’d beg when we got in one of our silly moods. She’d be happy to oblige and, after a second of clearing her throat and acting like she had to muster her concentration, she’d launch shuffling and stomping across the kitchen floor. Arms akimbo, she’d try to keep her long legs in step to a goofy rhyme I couldn’t quite remember. Then we’d clap and giggle and she’d bow like a wanna-be Rockette. I thought those giddy, girly times would go on forever, that an odd little dance in my mother’s kitchen would not become her star performance, one that my mind would struggle to illuminate in honor of what we had together. A massive brain hemorrhage killed her quickly and without warning just after my 18th birthday.
“I see it, Mum. I see it,” I whispered, still stuck where she stopped me in my tracks on Broadway. We were a long way from her kitchen, but she’d never left me. Through my grief, my fear of fate striking again, and my growing toward acceptance, she’d never stopped dancing. She was telling me larger than life on January 22, 2002, that I was keeping in step beside her. I was 45 years, seven months and 25 days old. I had lived exactly one day longer than she had – in a world that never sleeps – with my head and heart and eyes wide open to love that never dies.
Some people would say I just happened upon an advertisement for 42nd Street playing on Broadway. Others would believe that a daughter who calculated down to the day when she’d outlive her mother would somehow pacify herself with her own fantasy. I’d assure them I was meant to see that billboard in that exact time and place. Before I did, I was mad at myself for never asking what inspired Mum to shuffle off to Buffalo. Research and word searches on the Internet had only led me to old tap dance routines, not a musical. Had I ever heard the play’s title song: “Come and meet those dancin’ feet….on the avenue I’m taking you to…42nd Street,” I certainly wouldn’t have waited 28 years to accept the invitation.
So Mum’s answer was worth waiting for. And I knew the day would never have unfolded if I’d let fear and reason intervene. I would have turned down my sister’s invitation to go to New York. I would have spent the day soaking in a hot tub, or eating nothing but peanut butter pie, or just sitting with the stillness of my thoughts. In the end, I erased all the scenarios I’d imagined for that day and went on instinct.
I hadn’t spoken of my special anniversary to anyone until I retraced my route through Times Square that night to show my sister the sign.
“Wow, I never knew either,” Jan said. “Do you think she wants us to see the show? We only have one more day here.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
But when curtain time arrived the following night, we weren’t in our seats at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. I’d walked to the box office that morning, and I’d contemplated the discount ticket line forming right under the 42nd Street billboard. Instead, I got on a subway to downtown and used my time getting tickets for two spots on the World Trade Center viewing platform.
As I had expected, it was hard to fathom how much had been torn from beneath and beyond where we stared in silence. Landmarks standing tribute to prosperity and ambition, filled and surrounded by men and women busy with whatever had brought them to be in that place in time. Here was where it all suddenly changed, where images etched in our world view were obliterated, taking with them our sense of serenity and security. I looked into the gray open space, trying to piece together what had forever fallen, wondering what, exactly, I was supposed to find there. The day before, I was in Times Square with a short piece of footwork flickering across the emptiness once filled with the details of my mother’s face, her voice, and the thousands of moments that made up our lives. Now I was watching bulldozers move ghostlike inside a huge, dark trench. I stood there a long time and was walking slowly away before I understood. The answer that I, my sister, and everyone on that platform was looking for was not in the space below, or the darkness beyond. It was above and all around us. It was in the thousands of letters and prayers and pictures that lined the rescue area leading up to the platform. It was in each paper sign, each flower and flag and photo telling of people who lived, and loved, and worked…and danced in their kitchens.
I never did get to see 42nd Street on Broadway. But when I got home, I watched the 1933 version on video. I replayed it over and over in my living room until the lyrics stuck, and all the colors of my New York experience came out of the black and white images. I saw the twinkle in my mother’s eye again, the flash of her smile and her favorite jewelry. I knew the message she sent on that first day of the rest of my life was twofold: I could stare at the empty space in my world and wonder “why” and “what if”. Or, I could be part of the promise of each moment and come up with my own answers along the way.
I could sit it out. Or I could dance.
(Continued in Part Two)