2006.04.12 Letting the clowns out

Written by David Green.

By COLLEEN LEDDY

When my daughter Maddie and I returned from last week’s trip to New York, my husband asked if I did anything new. We had talked every day, but our conversations were always rushed or cut off when the train went underground, so he hadn’t heard all the details of our travels.

I paused before answering, thinking about the places we’d gone.

“The United Nations?” he suggested.

“Yeah, but that wasn’t really new,” I said. “I went there in fifth grade with my class.”

It was a horrible experience. I was Mr. Grossman’s star pupil in fifth grade. In a class of all the rejects—kids who weren’t good enough for band, orchestra or chorus—I stood out. Generally, at P.S. 102 in the Bronx, kids who weren’t musically adept weren’t hitting so high on the academic scale either. But, even though I couldn’t carry a tune and had no rhythm, I was pretty smart—at least in comparison to my peers.

So when our class went to the United Nations on a field trip and the tour guide asked questions as we stood in front of the swinging pendulum, Mr. Grossman was counting on me. And I didn’t remember a thing he’d taught us about that pendulum. I could tell Mr. Grossman was disappointed in me. It was one of those major moments in life, one that had such a profound impact I had no desire to enter the UN building ever again.

I still don’t know anything about that pendulum, but I did learn some new family information and experience a few new things on this trip to New York.

We stayed with my friend Adrienne who lives north of the city along the Hudson River in Tarrytown, in a little enclave called Sleepy Hollow Gardens. It’s comprised of dozens of apartments in three story buildings sprinkled around the grassy compound. There’s lots of parking in front of the buildings—if you can find it. Spaces aren’t assigned—it’s just a first come, first parked arrangement. During the day, there are several empty spots. But at night when people come home from work, everything fills up fast. When we arrived Monday night around 10 p.m. Adrienne guided us by phone to her apartment building and as we got closer, she told us to snap up the first spot we saw.

When I saw an open spot and then said, “Oh, there’s a dumpster there,” she told us to grab it. It’s OK to park in front of a dumpster except for the days garbage is picked up. We unloaded some of our stuff in the rain and later I went back by myself for more. As I approached the car, I noticed a man standing by his car directly across the street from mine. I was a little wary because he seemed to be watching me intently. As I put the key in the lock, he said, “You going out?”

I was momentarily confused. Going out with whom? Going out where? Why would he care? Then I remembered a book I read a few years ago, “Tepper Isn’t Going Out” by Calvin Trillin, about a man who cruises around New York, finds a parking spot and just sits there, reading the paper until the meter runs out. I realized the guy, parked illegally, only wanted to know if I would be vacating my parking spot. New experience: I felt like a character in a book.

And then there was all the new information I learned, most of it while eating dinner with Aunt Mary and Uncle Ronnie.

• Aunt Mary didn’t graduate from high school. She never went back for her diploma and never got a GED. She’s smart and perceptive and could easily be a psychologist or psychiatrist—she can figure people out so well and always has good advice.

• Uncle Ronnie’s mother was Jewish. Uncle Ronnie’s last name is Muscarella and he looks, talks and acts 100 percent Italian. He’s the guy famous for his malapropisms, the best of which he recounted when he was talking about his Jewish mother. He was in the doctor’s office and the doctor, checking his family history of diseases, asked how his mother died.

“She died of a cerebral hemorrhoid,” Ronnie answered.

• My grandfather jumped ship to stay in the United States. I had mentioned to Aunt Mary that we hoped to go to Ellis Island while in New York.

“Well, I don’t think you’ll find your granddaddy there,” she said.

Apparently, my grandfather left England by working on a ship. When they docked in New York, he never got back on the ship. A regular illegal alien.

• My niece Vicky, who will be 21 in August, is afraid of clowns.

“People say I have to face my fears so I go to the circus once a year,” she said.

It doesn’t help. She still gets pale and feels faint when the clowns come out.

I can empathize—that’s about how I felt when I saw that pendulum again.

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