Sunday, April 6, 2008

first trip to the City

It was round about 1971, when we were living in a big loft in Montreal, that a couple from NYC came to stay for several weeks. Russell had stolen his girlfriend Barbara from her very wealthy Manhattan parents and the fact she was an only child made this even more significant. Barbara was good company but pretty quiet in our bohemian surroundings. Russell was a different story. He was boisterous, funny as hell and hardly ever slept. My first clue he was a bit different was the fact he'd sit in a chair near the kitchen area all night long smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky with the cannister vacuum cleaner hose in one hand ready to hit the switch at the first glimpse of a cockroach. Since we lived on the fourth floor with bars on the other three there were a few of them around. I wasn't familiar with speed at the time but meeting Russell gave me a lesson in chemical dependency I've never forgotten.

They left Montreal a few weeks later when Barbara's parents agreed to condone the relationship. That would have been the end of the matter for us but for the fact they called several months later and invited me to NY as their Gentile guest for Passover. My son was very young but his father and the other people in the loft urged me to go since I was the only one among them who'd never been to the City. Thus, I found myself on a plane heading south a few days later. The flight was due to land at LaGuardia, one of the smallest of the NY airports, and getting there involved flying directly between the skyscrapers of NY. It was a brief but remarkable experience and when the plane landed on what appeared to be a large dock right on Flushing Bay I knew I wasn't in Canada anymore. That doesn't mean I wasn't familiar with other world class cities since by then I'd spent several years in Europe and the cities there aren't to be sneezed at ..but they're old and they're beautiful as they are. I know huge buildings are everywhere now but not so much at that time and who on earth could imagine tearing down the Louvre to put up the head office of an insurance company? (Don't answer that.)

Russell met me and took me on a whirlwind tour of the City in one of the Lincolns belonging to his new in-laws. We actually stood on the plaza of the World Trade Center but, try as I might, I simply can't draw that. Suffice it to say those buildings were huge; the North Tower had opened just a few months before and the South Tower was ready but not yet occupied. As I looked up and up and up I suddenly got very dizzy and started to topple backward. I would have fallen if he hadn't caught me and I explained that although I'd done some climbing and had even stood at the top of the Eiffel Tower, I seemed to be experiencing some serious vertigo.

By then it was getting close to dinnertime and we drove to one of the older apartment houses close to Central Park and left the car for one of the doormen to park. I knew the apartment would be nice but I hadn't been expecting a two story penthouse 29 floors up in one of New York's landmark residences. It was obvious Barbara's parents were more than just rich - they were super rich. I don't remember much about them or the dinner other than the fact that they were nice, the surroundings were large and luxurious and the servants quiet and efficient.

After dinner Russell asked if I'd like to go out to the terrace (yes, the terrace..not the balcony) to look at the Empire State Building and the skyline across Central Park. As we stood at the railing he suddenly picked me up and held me at arm's length over empty space and said, "What do you think would happen if I dropped you now?" His eyes were glassy and his grin was typical of a speed freak rictus. I was too terrified to think of anything other than I would never see my son or my parents again. I begged him to not let go. I begged him to bring me back. After a few minutes he did. I don't recall much about the rest of the visit but was never so happy to be home as I was the next day.

That was all a long time ago now but the memory has stayed at a very deep level. It was later, much later, when I really did start thinking about Russells's question and although I've never come up with an answer it's a question we all need to ask ourselves. Maybe we just need to keep in mind we can die at any time. Perhaps we need to live our lives in such a way that we will have no regrets about its ending. This isn't always possible but what is possible is to try.

This morning I remembered a favorite Joni Mitchell song and these words came to mind:
We are stardust,
We are golden.

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