The YMCA and Gifts We Can’t Keep

So I’m in therapy…again, after nearly a decade of being out. Yes, people, it turns out that I am not as sane as those of you who only know me from a distance would like to believe. Ha! I decided it was time to go in for a tune-up and my former and now current therapist returned my call very quickly, sounding pleased to hear from me again. He set up an appointment for the very next day. Hmm…it’s like he was expecting my return or somethin’…

And of course we’ve been talking a lot about my dad and my childhood…again, which reminded me that I wrote this down a while ago.

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Once I finished high school I decided, with enthusiastic encouragement on the part of friends and family, to go into fashion design. I secretly believed that my real career would eventually be pampered rock wife, but in the meantime fashion seemed a natural progression for a person who was always drawing and constantly overdressing. I chose Parsons School of Design because it was in New York, and because I liked the brochure better than the one from the Fashion Institute of Technology. I thought Parsons looked classier. It should have, the bloated tuition nearly broke my parents. But I didn’t have any concept of things like that, I just wanted to get the hell out of Michigan and into New York City.

In the Fall of 1983 my father and I packed all my New York worthy belongings into his big black Chrysler 80’s dad-mobile, one of those long luxury gas-hog cars they used to make with velour seating and an overabundance of space. This one just happened to be vampire colored—black with a burgundy interior— perfect for my arrival into the city. I had so much crap—hatboxes filled with hats I never wore, vintage shoes of every shape and color, three or four fur coats, milk crates jammed with vinyl, photographs, drawings, drafting table, art supplies—you name it, I took it, convinced that I would need it all. It packed out the trunk of the car and a small U-Haul trailer attached to the back.

My father warned me that the description of the room I was to stay in did not bode well for the containment of so much stuff. The Parsons dorms were filled to capacity so the school rented out a floor of a dilapidated YMCA on 34th Street and 9th Avenue. The lucky students relegated to this charming locale were given an 8′ x 12′ room (small bed and wardrobe provided) to sleep in and another room of the same size to share with another student as a workspace. But I was a child of the Midwestern upper middle class and I had no concept of the space constraints that came along with living in a crowded city, or of exactly how small an 8′ x 12′ room really is.

Once the car and trailer were packed to capacity we set out for a 15 hour drive—my father, myself, and a young man not much older than me who worked for my father. I can’t remember his name now but I do remember that he was a typical Michigan boy—naïve, outgoing, and incessantly cheerful. He and my father sat in the front seat and talked man talk about their work in the oil business while I sat in the back grinning that I was finally getting out of Dodge and on the verge of starting the fabulous and famous new life I knew I was meant to have. Everything that had happened up until then was just filler as far as I was concerned.

After a day of driving, a night in a motel, another day of driving, and an hour in the hellacious traffic that surrounds the city, we made it to 34th Street and 9th Avenue late in the afternoon. My father and I left the boy to watch the car and stepped into the lobby of my new home, which turned out to be the interior of what was essentially a seedy flophouse, a phenomenon which I had never seen before. Where I came from everything was kept clean and neat, all pastels and freshly scrubbed faces. In this building everything looked old and covered in a layer of grime and the people walking back and forth did not look fresh-scrubbed or happy to be there. Still, it was NYC to me and I was excited, and I could sense that my father had hope that the student floor would be better.

We signed in with a remarkably surly staff and received the key to my room—a novelty as I’d never had a key to somewhere to live before because our house was always unlocked. We waited for an eternity for the elevator, which then creaked up slowly and stopped on every floor before depositing us on a floor where student types were moving around—some carrying boxes and bags with purpose, others standing in the hall holding towels and toothbrushes and talking to one another as if they’d lived there forever. It wasn’t exactly the cheerful mayhem you see in teen movies about college dorms, but at least everyone looked clean and young and hopeful about life, not like the depressed down-and-outs on their last legs downstairs.

I could feel my father’s relief as we walked down the ratty carpet looking for my room, which was situated right across from the shared bathroom (flip flops a must!). I turned the key and opened the door wide and we stood side by side in the doorway in speechless awe at my new room. It was tinier than I ever imagined possible; it could barely fit the bed and the small wardrobe, which clearly wasn’t going to fit all the clothing I had packed. The bed was really just a cot and the mattress was stained and dubious-looking. The walls were institutional blue and grimy. Directly across from the door was a grease-covered window, with equally greasy Venetian blinds (two broken slats), facing another dirty and anonymous building. The floor was covered in dingy beige tile. A single cockroach trudged lazily across the width of the room towards the underside of the bed.

Up until that moment I had not known that I was a child of privilege, not of great wealth, but simple upper middle class privilege. I came from a place where people owned their own large houses containing large bedrooms in which to store as many items as one might choose to own. My mother’s floors and walls were always very clean, the beds warm and inviting with crisp cotton sheets, and there was no such thing as a dirty window with broken blinds. There are no cockroaches there and no one I knew ever lived alone in a tiny, shitty room like this one.

I was very tired from the drive and facing the job of packing all my stuff into this hideous, tiny space. And now I was really scared, but I didn’t want my father to worry. I held back tears and my eyes burned, and without turning to look at him I said with false cheer, “Well…this is what I wanted!”

He put his arm around my shoulder and said quietly, “It looks like you got it then, Mare.” My father was a strong Italian man who had never refused a request from his daughter and he wasn’t going to do it now, although I knew this was a particularly difficult wish to fulfill.

Back downstairs I leaned against the car, guarding it while the two men used a dolly to lug the records and excess clothing and books and crap that I obviously wasn’t going to need. It took a few trips but fairly quickly the car and U-haul were empty and it was dark outside and time for them to start on the long journey back. We stood on the sidewalk and my dad hugged me tightly and said, “It’ll be okay, kiddo.” I knew he was reassuring himself as much as me. He got in the car and waved out the window and I stood on the sidewalk of 34th Street, feeling very small and very alone as I watched the car pull away.

It was the last time I would ever see my dad.

By the Spring of 1984 I was far more interested in going out than going to school. On one particular night Michael Schmidt dropped me off at 3 am from a night at the Pyramid and as soon as I got in my room there was a knock on my door. There was a call on the house phone. I padded down the hall to the big pay phone still wearing my evening finery (stone sober, I didn’t drink then) and picked up the dangling receiver. I heard my mother crying and she said,

“Dad’s gone.” This was completely confusing to me and I asked,

“Well, where did he go?”

My father had suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed of a heart attack and died at age 47 at a time when I was completely preoccupied with my own world and not paying any attention to him whatsoever. I probably hadn’t spoken to him over the phone in a couple of months. When I think of that night I am always reminded of the line that Cher spoke in Moonstruck: “How was I supposed to know that he was a gift I couldn’t keep?”

But the suddenness of his passing left me with one other gift: I am completely unafraid to say “I love you” regularly to the people I love. I don’t care if it loses meaning to them because it’s repeated too often. Because you just never know which gifts you can keep, and which ones you’ll be forced to let go of in this life.


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