After walking around midtown, it was time to return to the downtown of my parents' memories, to Greenwich Village. For about five or so years before she got married, my mother lived on W. 12 St between 6th and 7th Avenues, and my father would often meet her in the Village on the weekend for a date. They came and went in the Village at a time when it still existed in a warm glow. By 1977, it was a vast needle park, a hook-up rendezvous, a large bath house. So much had changed so quickly. I suppose the Village was now just something else for someone else, as Bohemia often must be, but my parents didn't recognize it any more. They drove down the avenues and streets pointing out places that had disappeared, gone shuttered or dilapidated. "Oh my God," they whispered from time to time, wondering how a decade could have turned their former haunt on its head, and out onto the gutter.
I remember a moment where two men were walking on the sidewalk to our right, and my Dad hit a puddle with the car that accidentally sent a stream of water onto the walkers. As we drove past, Dad sheepishly looked in his rear view mirror and asked me if he had doused them. Yup, I replied. He shook his head in embarrassment and quietly cursed at himself. I looked out the back window and saw that one of the walking men was taller and blonder than the other. The smaller one was the offended, and he wore a handlebar mustache and a gray coat not made for the splash. The two men stared at the man's stained jacket with astonishment. Then they looked up at my disappearing face out the back window. The taller man mouthed something and the slighter one raised his hand high enough for us to see, and before we could turn the corner, he flipped us the bird.
We went to Monte's for dinner, on MacDougal Street. I don't remember anything other than it being Italian food and, importantly, a walk of stairs down from the street. I loved the idea of underground things. I loved the idea of disappearing from the threatening world above to a safer, warmer world below, a place to hide from the world.
"When I live in New York City," I said to my parents, "I want to live underground."
"What?" Dad asked. "You mean, like, a basement?"
"Without windows?" Mom asked.
I nodded my head.
"It might be the only safe place in the city," Dad said.
"It's certainly not on the subway," Mom added.
By this time, I had already followed the drama of the Jets game. Traveling and eating on Sundays in the autumns and winters of my childhood were always complicated experiences in powerlessness. All that stood between me and knowing the fate of my football team was usually an AM radio in the car or maybe a transistor radio Dad carried in his coat pocket and selectively decide to leave on. As we got out and back into the car, visiting this place and that, I got snippets of things. (photo courtesy of Corbis) The Steelers missed a point after, the Jets tied the game twice in the first half. Perhaps measuring out hope in little bits and pieces was easier on me. I probably missed the little detail that Matt Robinson had to replace Richard Todd in the game, or that the Jets might have drawn closer had they not committed six turnovers.
As we got out of and back into the car over the course of our visit, I learned that the Jets were managing to stay within a touchdown of the Steelers at halftime and that they would draw within three by the end. It would stay that way, though - 23-20. The Jets lost their ninth game of the season.
All I could think about while we ate was that at the very least the Jets had been within three of a powerful AFC team, just as they had nearly beaten the defending champion Raiders a few weeks before, just as they had actually beaten the defending AFC East champions the week before that. The reality was that the Jets were never really in the game. Everything in my walled-in world was characterized by almosts and if onlys, where hope could remain unharmed and, more cynically, harmless.
When we got home, I saw that NBC was showing the animated version of The Hobbit which, until Guillermo del Toro puts out his version in 2012, is the only cinematic version of it there is. I still don't think I understand or appreciate the Ring series. My avidly Christian students prefer Narnia to to Middle Earth. I tell them that I spent time at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford where C.S. Lewis and JRRRRRR Tolkein frequently had lunch, and my students act the way I might have had someone told me that they had gone on a tour of Abbey Road studios. The truth is I got drunk there a couple of times, which didn't help my memory of the place.
I must have been watching it with Dad. Hobbits live happily in their warm little coves and huts, or whatever they called them, though Bilbo journeys outside the Shire and becomes entranced by the world beyond. I loved the hobbit's life - secure, safe, away from the world.
Then somewhere near the time I was supposed to go to bed the character of the Gollum appeared, in his deep, dark, wet cave that didn't look unlike the underground dark, sparsely lit and forbidding lines approaching the last stop at Grand Central Station.
At this point, Bilbo has already found Gollum's ring in the mud of the cave, and he approaches him. I asked Dad what he thought Gollum was referring to when he spoke of "my precious," and not knowing anything about Tolkein, he answered, "Maybe it's his stomach." It sounded logical since Gollum wanted to eat Bilbo.
His "precious" was the ring, of course. It ruled his thoughts. It consumed his every motivation to the point where poor Gollum, who was once a kind of hobbit, had become perverted and deformed into a creature unwilling to see the light of day. He was addicted to its power, to a beauty that no one outside of its influence could possibly grasp. To be honest, I still find most of the Middle Earth saga hard to digest, let alone pronounce. But I'm still drawn to the misshapen creature whom Bilbo tricks and upon whom he also takes pity - Smeagol, the Gollum - a creature so obsessed with his Precious that he cannot live in the world. Normal and beloved before he came in contact with the ring, he had now haplessly devolved into a creature wholly accustomed to darkness and solitude. I was fascinated by his sickness, and I left The Hobbit and went up to bed once Bilbo ran past Gollum at the cave entrance, and the greenish ghoul wailed away in hatred.
The next day, at school, we were asked in my third grade class to write a piece about what we did over the weekend. I wrote about and reported to the class that the Jets almost beat the Steelers but lost. And yes, I took a trip with my family. One of the girls in class wrote about having a fight over the weekend with another of our classmates, but they made up and were happy now. The two laughed about it. The class smiled. I looked over at Jake Walsh with whom, as I mentioned before, I had experienced some kind of conflagration a few days before. Just like us, I smiled at him. He looked back at me, grimly, scowled and shook his head. You just don't get it, he seemed to say.