A Walker In His City

NB: Solicited and then gently unhanded by The New York Times Magazine for reasons too convoluted to get into!


My father and I are so alike-looking that cashiers turning to us in a checkout line always know we’re together. The list of other convergences is too brief: He showed me a great deal of love, so I learned to believe in it. Otherwise, he’s private, and I am confessional. I’m turbulent, and he’s steady. I trust, and he doubts. I risk, and he shakes his head. This might be no crisis in an American family, but in a Russian, it feels like a grave error by some essential wheel in the system, a misalignment both tragic and urgent. But only I am confessional, so I don’t know if he sees it the same way. Sometimes, I look at him and wonder if he ever thinks about how someone like him made someone like me.

This winter, we had an old disagreement that bewildered me in a new way — perhaps because I had published my first novel the previous summer, and through it managed to make myself understood to many people I’d never met. Still not him, though. This time, it wasn’t enough to slink away to our corners and lick quietly at our wounds — the dark pleasure of being wronged — until we met again as if nothing had happened. I wanted to tell him I loved him, but I couldn’t pick up the phone and apologize.

My father works as a doorman in a tony residential building on the Upper East Side. Five days a week for more than twenty years, he has taken a bus to Port Authority from the New Jersey suburb where he lives with my mother, and if the weather was fine, walked the two miles to work to save on the subway fare. Sometimes, I tell him that I wish he had made more of his uncommon gifts as a craftsman, but he loves being a doorman in a nice building, its serene order and comfort. He loves being the doorman whose son published a novel, as he loves the people around whom he works. They live the life that he dreamed of (for his son) as a Soviet citizen.

So I took his walk. I took the subway from the Lower East Side, where I live, to Port Authority, and walked to 62nd and Park, a walk he has made thousands of times, give or take. I couldn’t say exactly why I was doing it, and that convinced me it was a good thing to do — so little that I do in this city lacks necessity. I guess I wanted to be saved from my best intentions for once.

I had heard him say once that, from Port Authority, he crossed right away to the East Side before walking up Park because there was less truck traffic there, so I did the same thing: Out of Port Authority’s leaden gloom, through the clotted traffic of 8th Avenue, and up several blocks, to that sweet spot between 42nd and 47th where a measure of tranquillity is available to the midtown-crosser. (My father hates noise.) Past the cooks in doorways shivering as they smoke and scratch off lotto tickets, the gloved men leaning on hand trucks, the talk about aggregate portfolios and how our estimates compare to the Street. The tourists look up and he stares ahead; he runs to catch the light because he wants away from the clamor. He’s right — north on Park is more quiet, businesspeople rather than tourists, office towers rather than billboards. And then, abruptly, his part of the East Side begins: Dogs, pinstripes, people obeying the light, and the kind of haute eccentricity that only true wealth brings. Here he looks up while the other walkers look straight. It took no more than a half-hour to walk 1.7 miles in his shoes.

Having come so close, it seemed strange to turn around without saying hello. He was on his lunch break, which meant he was in the basement; he always brings lunch from home. One of the maintenance people took me down in the back elevator. Sighting me, my father’s eyes opened with a kind of marvel that he tries to allow himself as little as possible. What was I doing there? I had a doctor’s appointment nearby, I lied. I asked if I could buy him lunch — my treat. He looked at me in a way that said: Your pocket, my pocket, it’s all the same pocket. Besides, his Tupperware was already open. He pointed to a three-legged stool on the other side of his narrow table, then retrieved a bowl into which he ladled half his pasta and meatballs against my protests. He had made it the previous night. The food was flavorful, and we slurped away mostly in silence. It was a good one, for once.

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