Thursday, Oct. 31, 1996
Walked to the copy shop at 9 a.m. under a mustard-colored umbrella to fax a “Diary” entry to SLATE. Rain bouncing up from the asphalt, forming rows of tiny classical fountains. Leaves all along the curbs, in soaked and faded yellow mounds as pale as my umbrella; the childhood smell of autumn.
Long ago, on delectably brown-gray wet days like this, I never wanted to go to school. I recall one particular morning when, more than anything else imaginable, I longed to cozy back into bed with the big orange-covered Don Quixote inherited from my cousin Billy. (Billy’s father, my Uncle Joe, used to say he would one day wear a laurel wreath around his genitals when Billy, who grew up to be a doctor, discovered the cure for cancer. Billy still hasn’t achieved that, but he did recently write a bestseller on the beneficial effects of melatonin. I don’t know whether Uncle Joe, in Paradise now, considers this reason enough to adorn his private parts, or, for that matter, whether the denizens of Paradise–such an aethereal environment!--get to keep their private parts.)
There was a ritual in the request to stay home and read on a rainy day. It began early. First I would sidle up to my mother’s side of the bed: “Mama, can I stay home today?” Mama, groggy, deferring, taking the part of Sancho Panza: “Ask papa.” Now to papa’s side, with just a hint of a theatrical wail: “Papa, I don’t want to go to school. Can I stay home?” Papa–instantly, not a nanosecond’s hesitation: “Yeh.” Not the formal “yes,” nor the elongated “yeah,” but the quicker, shorter, dismissive vowel, the vowel that meant, I think, that the fourth grade wasn’t one of the most serious aspects of life, but rather a windmill one needn’t bother tilting at. At least not every day.
North Avenue in the puddled early rainlight. The bustle (but not that fragmented lonely overpopulated vertiginous intimidating rush of, for instance, Upper Broadway), the shining wet sidewalks, one small shop after another, the tiny Indian candy store that sells lottery tickets and the Times, the yellow-brick post office, the red-brick plaza leading to the public library, the anise fragrance drifting out of a bakery, the busy bagel counter, the law office where, if you stop by to get a paper notarized, Henry Grant, Esq., will joyfully sing you a patriotic song he composed himself (both words and music), the two thriving fruit-and-vegetable stands at the corner of North and Main (one Mexican, the other Chinese) already crowded with old women in plastic hats gathering luminous green peppers and red and yellow apples, the road past the mast-studded marina on the way to the bay-rimmed park, the geese too stubborn to fly away, the brown busybody town-bred baby sparrows pecking … oh golden rain-lit morning! If only I had a school to go to, so I could stay home from it!
The other half of town–the suburban half, where there are no sidewalks–doesn’t like our half. I suppose they think of us as too messily various. And, to tell the truth, we think of their half as parochial, provincial, small-minded, ingrown, blind to our daily marvels and beauties. “I never go past the railroad station,” a very nice man said; “I’ve never been to Main Street.” “Don’t tell me,” said a man who heads a college, “there are people still living down there?” And a woman who teaches art to children: “Do you people have someplace to shop?” Ah, we people, lucky locals who frequent the fabled A&P Future Store, with its indoor gardens of fruit and flowers and masses of foreign cheeses and towers of cakes! We, who live in the history-saturated half of a colonial town where there are houses (mine, for instance) older than the United States of America! Where a cow once had to be presented annually to Lord Pell!