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1957 — The Station

The Station
1957 – 1963

In the spring of 1957, when I was eight years old, my parents split up. I moved into Manhattan with my mother after their house in the Long Island suburb of Roslyn was sold, and the legal nicities of their divorce were registered with the courts. Among these were the provisions for visitation with my father, which stated that he had a right to my company two weekends a month.

      Now as it happened, my father had ended up marrying another woman who lived up the street back in Roslyn, who in turn had to ditch a spouse of her own. She was an attractive brunette with a steady, mild personality of the kind not much in evidence around our house, who drove an MG convertible. Lest too much sympathy be extended to the “wronged parties” in this case, suffice it to say for now there is no question that my mother was an insufferable harpy, and as I learned decades later, that she had been enjoying relations covertly with various other randy men of her acquaintence during that time. The upshot of all this is that for the remaining years of my childhood I went regularly back to Roslyn to visit my father.
      The first year of this arrangement I would, two Fridays every month, take the Madison Avenue bus from my grammar school at 82nd Street down to 47th, where my father’s office factotum, an ancient African-American named Casper, met me at the corner at precisely 3:30 and escorted me safely to my father’s office on the seventh floor of a building near Sixth Avenue.
       My father was in the diamond trade and 47th Street is the center of the diamond universe. His role in that little galaxy was middleman. He made regular trips to Antwerp, Belgium, another diamond galaxy, and purchased wholesale stones there, which he then brought back to America and distributed to his various customers who fabricated the final product: retail jewelry. He had taken over his own father’s business. He accomplished all this in a four room suite where he worked with one partner, Emil, who ended up robbing him around 1962, and afterward with Emil’s replacement, the more reliable Marty. There was also a secretary who managed the flow of clients as well as the books.
      It was a real Scrooge-and-Cratchit operation as far as I could make out, a dull routine that involved little more than the weighing, close inspection, and sorting of tiny objects into glassine envelopes, and a little shmoozing with the fellows who came to pick up the envelopes, which accounts for my father’s impressive collection of jokes. However, he had little time for me during the hour or so between the moment I arrived and the end of the business day. I generally sat in the conference room reading comic books until it was time to leave. At five, I accompanied my father to the Long Island Railroad terminal in Penn Station where we caught the 5:23 or somesuch train to Manhassatt. There, we met up with three other commuter men from my father’s housing subdivision with whom he shared a “station car,” a 1947 Dodge that smelled wonderfully of old upholstery, and in it we proceeded the final five miles to his house.
       After that first year, with sufficient training, I was deemed responsible enough to get myself out to Long Island via the railroad. So two Saturday mornings a month I would get up early and catch a Fifth Avenue bus down to 33rd Street. The fabulous train station designed by the great Beaux Arts firm of McKim, Meade, and White, conceived to emulate the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, was at that time barely fifty years old. But as I approached the main portico that terminated 33rd Street at Seventh Avenue, it seemed so monumental and ancient in its grandeur that it must have already been standing in place when Peter Minuet swindled the poor Indians out of their Island.
      Saturday mornings, with no commuters streaming in, the station was a mellow place of leisure for a ten-year-old boy. I didn’t have much disposable income after I’d bought my ticket and a comic book — which I always saved for the ride itself — so I amused myself by wandering among the many purveyors around the concourse. My favorite place for window shopping was the Hoffritz Cutlery shop, which had enough knives of various kinds on display that it could have outfitted a fair-sized barbarian horde, including all sorts of daggers, dirks, throwing-knives, and skinning blades that would not otherwise seem to have much application in a city full of men wearing neckties. The Hoffritz store was next door to the Nedick’s hot dog stand, where the world’s most aromatic hot-dogs began revolving on their roller-grill at that hour. I never had enough spare change to get one, and was too imbued with moral prohibition against eating hot dogs at 8:15 even if I had the cash. But I loved smelling the hot dogs on the grill and eyeballing the wondrous knives in the window, imagining myself a warrior, and that is how I passed the time until the public address system announced my train.
      The half-hour trip out to Nassau County, roughly 15 miles, took you through the dreariest precincts of Queens, where the interminable rows of miserable lumpenprole row-houses merged with sooty collision yards and pinball repair depots and automobile window replacement shops and other gritty businesses geared to the miraculously entropic post-war economy. Every now and then the tracks crossed some commercial boulevard of 1920s vintage, full of bakeries and dry cleaners and people shuffling around doing their Saturday morning chores. At some point after the Douglaston stop, the city’s ragged edge merged into what had been, until after World War II, real countryside. Only now, it was in the full heat of its conversion to the drive-in utopia that my parents’ generation was intent on building as their monument to our nation’s victory over Hitler.
      My father was always reliably waiting for me in his car (the regular Chevy, not the station car) and we went back to his house, past the “Miracle Mile,” as the prototypical gigantic new strip mall on Northern Boulevard was named, and up into the old East Hills where his house stood among three hundred other nearly identical split-level houses built starting in 1953, in a style that might be called Mass Production Halleluljah Traditional. Our relationship centered entirely on my assisting my father in whatever home improvement project he was doing that week: laying patio slate, improving the foundation beds, or just general maintenence like mowing the grass. We did not go fishing or attend ball games. During my time off, I generally vanished to join the two school chums I had left behind after the divorce, Brian and Roger, and we did what boys do with bicycles within the mind-numbing limits of suburbia. Roger was more of an intrepid explorer than Brian, and with Roger I sometimes ventured off into the as-yet-un-raped rural enclaves of Westbury and Brookville that ran east of Glen Cove Road, where you got a very vivid sense of the beauty of Long Island before William Levitt and his imitators came in with their bulldozers.
     As time went on, though, I began to feel rather like an indentured servent out there at my father’s house, a visiting landscape laborer, and at a certain point when I was sixteen I announced that I was no longer available for chores like lawnmowing, since I didn’t really live there and wasn’t being remunerated. This occasioned a big explosion in which my father whacked me upside the head a few times, deemed me “an ingrate,” ordered me into his car, and dumped me back at the Manhassatt station with imprecations to never darken his door again.
      That was all right with me. By then I was capable of going up to Yankee Stadium by myself, or the Museum of Natural History, where the shrunken heads were, or any of three dozen movie theaters around Manhattan. And on weekend nights in the city, I began perfecting my technique of following groups of other teenagers into buildings and crashing their parties. I had an awkward reconciliation with the old man a year later, arranged by his sympathetic wife, but it never went very far because he began chafing under the looming issue of my going off to college, and he had made it clear in so many words that he was not planning to pay for it. How I managed that is another chapter.
     In 1963, Pennsylvania Station was torn down to make way for a new Madison Square Garden and a Modernist office tower. The loss of the monumental building was such a shock to a certain cultured minority of the city that the preservation movement was born.
     Strange to relate, it wasn’t until many years later that it occurred to me that my father had never actually made a single trip into the city for the sole purpose of visiting me. Nor had he ever seen the place I lived after we ceased to be a family.

About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

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