Two Incidents and the Meaning of Life
by Miles Orvell
Even in Sunnyside, looking back to the peaceful 1950s, and to my uneventful childhood there--when cars had fins and Shake, Rattle, and Roll was on the radio--life wasn't always sunny, and keeping to the sunny side of the street wasn't always possible.
In the early grades, I used to walk to school from our apartment on 46th Street to P.S. 150 every day, even coming home for lunch in the early years, a long walk that left me about 8 minutes to actually eat the bowl of Campbell's vegetable or tomato soup my mother had prepared, along with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, before I had to make my return trip. Walking back and forth between school and home was the high point of the day, especially with the shops along the way, like Brody's, where you could sit at the marble counter and get an egg cream, another taste memory I have placed in storage.
By the fifth grade or so, a group of us decided we'd go out for lunch once or twice a week. We went to the crowded Broilers for hamburgers, not far from school, and their burgers remain the standard for me. But to vary our routine and as a special treat, we walked as quickly as possible to an Italian restaurant (on Greenpoint Avenue?) for a pizza. It was a "real" restaurant and we sat in a booth, but we were usually the only customers in the place at noon and it felt a little odd, as if we shouldn't be there--we were too young. And we were always rushed on those days--given the long walk to get back to school on time--and we had to eat the hot pizza quickly. As a result, we were always burning the roofs of our mouths, and the perfect blend of cheese and sauce fought against the pain on every bite. And then there was the problem of how much of a tip a group of ten year olds should leave.
One morning on my way to school, it was raining and very windy and everything was blowing wildly. I was about mid-way on the block approaching 45th Street, walking along 43rd Avenue, and there was a Cleaners shop with one of those swinging signs out front, at right angles to the store front. It was an old sign, rusted and black with age, the art-deco letters barely visible. I’d never noticed it before, until I saw as I approached that the sign was swinging wildly in the storm, weighing probably a hundred pounds. I was a few feet from it, about to walk under it, when it suddenly dropped straight down, crashing to the street with a frighteningly loud metallic clatter. I froze for a moment, before hurrying around it.
I got to school in a daze. "You know what happened today on my way to school?" I could tell the story but without any consciousness of how close to having my skull crushed I had been.
Years later, when I read The Maltese Falcon and the story of Flitcraft - whose life is nearly ended when a falling construction beam just misses him on his walk to work - I thought I too had had my Flitcraft moment. For Hammet's character, the event produced a sudden shock and a realization that he'd been given a second life, a second chance, and he must therefore change everything in his routine existence. He does change everything, moving to another city, finding a new wife and family, a new job, and discovering at a certain point that his life is exactly the same as it was. So much for these sudden illuminations, Hammet seems to be saying. It's about character, whatever that is, not big chances and big changes.
I was too young to know any of this or to change my life, and I was too young to see that moment in anything but the immediate present and my continuing luck. After all, I'd already been hit by a truck and had survived nicely with just two broken arms when I was five. My brother and I had been sledding after a snowfall in the Bacon Lot, our term for the vacant lot that was a perfect sledding hill on 45th Street, before it was the site of a new townhouse. Down I went, right into the street and into the path of an oncoming truck, which evidently had no idea it had hit me and drove on into the snowy afternoon.
Another near death experience happened a few years later, but in this case it was not my own near death. I used to bike to the synagogue - on 43rd Street, I think, though it's no longer there - where, in a basement classroom, under the watchful instruction of the archetypal Hebrew teacher, slightly portly and wearing a grey suit, white shirt, and tie, I was learning to read Hebrew. A couple of times, on my way there, I was stopped by some older kids, in a neighborhood version of highway robbery, but generally, I was OK on my bike. My path to the Jewish Center took me to the nearby White Castle - my other favorite hamburger place, even though it was the exact opposite of the Broiler's - and I loved to ride around that building, circling it many times, from parking lot to street, round and round, depending on how much time I had before class began. Even in those days, riding a bike on the sidewalk was not approved practice, but my high speed circuit of the White Castle was definitely not a good idea.
This became immediately obvious, as I rounded the blind corner, riding on the sidewalk in front of the building, and saw a woman who might have been around 80, holding a bag of groceries and walking slowly toward me. I see her now, in her black dress and black sweater. I swerved to my left, she stepped to her right, I swerved to my right and she again stepped into my path. This all happened in the space of a second, before the inevitable occurred and I ran into her at top speed, and we both lay sprawling on the sidewalk. Her bag, with oranges and vegetables, were scattered around her. She had hit her head on the sidewalk and was bleeding from somewhere on her face, around her eye. A passer-by stopped, glared at me, and then tended to her, white handkerchief in hand.
I was stricken with fear, guilt, a sense of my stupidity, my horror at the injury I'd inflicted-- all of this in an instant. These emotions combined to paralyze me, but in a few more seconds, I managed to get up and pull my bike to its feet, while I could see a policeman trotting toward the scene. Following a few contemptuous glances, the gathering crowd seemed to ignore me, while I felt torn inside between saying, "Officer, Officer, arrest me!" and getting out of there as fast as possible. I chose the second option and went on to my Hebrew lessons, pondering the mechanics of this collision and wondering what my future would be, in the face of this great wrong I had done.
I arrived shaken, a pit of anxiety in my stomach, and the tutor asked, half-concerned and half-jovial, "Moshe, what is wrong? You look like the Angel of Death just passed you." I mumbled incoherently and slinked into my chair, staring at my blue Hebrew notebooks, looking for an answer to a question I couldn't begin to frame.
All of this happened so many years ago. . . . but we've been watching Ruiz's Time Regained, a version of Proust, and it seems like yesterday . . . .
I left Sunnyside in 1957, when we moved to Rego Park. After Forest Hills H.S., I went to Columbia, then Harvard for my Ph.D., and I've been teaching English & American Studies at Temple since 1970. I've got a new book coming out in early 2021, Empire of Ruins.