The subway car stood still. The doors opened. I kept reading. My daughter Marlee, in a trance from a song on her iPod, poked me. Stand clear of the closing doors. Ding. The doors closed. Screech.
“Will you cut it out?” I hollered. Marlee was becoming annoying.
“Is it too much to ask to sit there and listen to music while I read?” I asked her.
“You’re always reading,” she said.
“Well, you’re always listening,” I told her.
With that, my nose went back into the fine print. We’d been sitting on the uptown #2 train in Manhattan for some time.
I had signed Marlee up for acting classes 18 months earlier. I logged on to the internet one afternoon and found a high profile actors’ studio in mid-town offering a two hour session on Saturday mornings. Marlee had been selected in 4th grade for the ensemble cast of ‘Tommy’ by The Who, the 2005 Plainview-Old Bethpage High School production. I sat in shock through the play. Marlee was singing center-stage. Too many thoughts ran through my head. Maybe this is her calling.
After four sessions at the studio, Marlee decided to sleep-in on Saturdays. She hated this class that much. She’d never get up from our brown, soft-cushioned couch.
“Marlee get up, time for acting.”
“Marlee, it’s enough, the fake snoring. I see you smiling.”
“Now you’ve done it,” I would yell.
Out of the clear blue, Bob Marley and the Wailers would make one last attempt.
“Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up. Don’t give up the fight.”
Marlee would moan, cackle, sniffle, and with reluctance, sit up. Then she’d make some lame excuse like she had a sore throat, or a stomach ache. Jan, my girlfriend, would eventually pull the CD out and shut everything off.
I thought to myself, there has to be a school that will teach her the essentials of acting. I was seeking a professional who would help enhance her self-esteem, work with her one-on-one, not just have her read from a piece of paper in a room with 50 other kids. It was worth another try. With a click of luck several months later, we’d landed in the studios of Peggy Lewis and Biz Kids down at Pier 40. It would be a full day of acting, and singing; almost six hours each Saturday.
The first time I took Marlee it was a 90 degree day. We had hopped onto the #1 local train from 125th Street and Broadway on the west side of Manhattan, and rode down to the Houston Street stop. Then, we walked, and walked, and walked some more. We looked around and walked again. My feet were sore. The t-shirt I was wearing was soaked. My mouth was dry. I called them and said I was lost. They directed me in detail. It didn’t help. Meanwhile the temperature had risen three degrees. I was out of steam. Were they trying to drive me mad? Where was this place? Was it a hoax? Marlee wanted to go home. She was uncomfortable. Her legs were like wet noodles. We sat on a bench somewhere and took a breather.
“Daddy, what are we going to do?” she asked.
“I don’t know. How can we be lost? It’s around here. I can taste it.” I answered.
With one last gust of fortitude left in me, I took a deep breath, looked up to the sun, licked my index finger, and raised it high in the air. I thought to myself, “C’mon sunshine, take me to Biz Kids, please.”
“This way,” I told her.
“How do you know?” she asked.
“Earthling, have I ever let you down?”
“You’re weird,” she answered.
The final limp to the steel door was momentous. From the time the subway doors had opened at the Houston Street station, it had taken 45 minutes to find. Biz Kids was stuffed down a narrow causeway by a kayak rental. That was a brutal Saturday morning. Nevertheless, she loved it and looked forward to going every other week.
On this October afternoon, we were on our way back home from a day at Biz Kids. We had gotten on the #2, the express train, at Houston Street which was making all local stops up to 96th Street because of construction. The #1 local train was not running uptown at that station that day. We would need to get off at 96th Street and wait for the #1 train that would take us to 125th St. and Broadway. If not, the #2 would continue, but veer off, making stops in central Harlem. It was cold. I wore my black leather jacket. Marlee had on a windbreaker.
“I told you to put on something heavier this morning,” I told her.
“I wasn’t cold,” she said.
“Oh, I see, you weren’t cold. You’re lucky it’s not a long walk to the subway.”
At 96th Street she poked me. I wasn’t paying attention. I was eye deep into Chapter 5. When I looked up we were at 116th Street and Central Park North.
“Oh crap!” I yelled out.
“What? What happened?” she cried.
“God damn it! This time, you were right and I messed up. We’re going to have to get off at the next stop. It’s 125th Street but nowhere near my apartment.”
“Why. Because we should have gotten off at 96th Street, that’s why! I was daydreaming, or reading, or something. It’s no big deal. We can just go across and get the subway going downtown or grab a bus. Earthling, I will lead you home, because I am Spartacus.”
“You are really weird,” she smiled.
We walked up the stairs and it hit us like bricks – rain, falling from the sky, in buckets.
“Ho-lee shit,” I mumbled to myself.
“Oh my God!” Marlee shouted.
“Now what?” I asked her.
We looked at each other dumbfounded. Never thinking that it would rain, I never bothered to bring an umbrella or a hat. It smelled like rain-induced smoke, the kind you see shooting up from sewer plates, almost like exhaust from a car. I glanced around from the middle of the stairwell and had no idea where I was. The rain was thrashing down so hard I couldn’t see anything. Dusk was setting in which made it even more difficult. I’d only been living in the city for less than two years and had never been in this neck of the woods. Which way was Amsterdam Avenue? Where did we have to stand to catch a cross-town bus? Where was the downtown subway? My train of thought had vanished. My sense of direction, gone. We stood for another minute and then I saw a heavy-set black man at the top of the stairwell with a doorman umbrella.
“Excuse me, yeah, hi, which way to Amsterdam?” I asked him.
“Fella, you got a long walk. It’s that way.” he pointed.
“Damn!” I exclaimed.
“You got an umbrella?” he asked.
“I don’t,” I told him.
He shook his head and wished me luck. I told Marlee that Amsterdam couldn’t be that far. We’d walk.
“But it’s pouring, and I’m cold,” she stated.
“Great, now you’re cold. Well, five minutes we’ll be home, I promise.” I told her.
“You said you were Spartacus, Daddy,” she said.
“I did, and I am. Trust me on this.”
In the midst of a late afternoon torrential downpour we trudged across 125th Street to the west side of Harlem. The mighty wind gusted. Cars honked. Bright headlights flickered. Windshield wipers swayed. We passed men and women with umbrellas. Some were inside out, others torn to shreds. Store owners were closing up and running full speed to shelter. The rain didn’t let up. I kept looking at Marlee.
“You OK?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she answered back.
I held her hand as we crossed Lenox. Water had seeped into my jacket, shirt, and pants. My shoes were flooded. My hair was drenched. My fingers and toes were numb from the cold. Marlee never said anything. We kept walking.
“Just think of the sun,” I told her. “Pretend the heat is beating down on us.”
“Can we tell the sun to keep us warm?” she questioned.
“Yes, you can tell the sun anything you want,” I told her. “Just don’t tell anyone I got us lost.”
Water had crawled into my eyes. I had to blink a few times to make sure my contacts were still there. After we crossed 7th Avenue, I knew we were in the home stretch. It was so cold, Marlee’s hands were turning blue. I had to take a few deep breaths to make sure my body parts were functioning. On and on we walked as the downpour got worse. We hit Amsterdam and I knew it was only a matter of minutes before we would be inside. It had been a memorable twenty-five minute excursion.
When Jan opened the door to our apartment she stood there. Her jaw dropped. We were soaked. The two of us dripped all over the hallway. There were two puddles right outside the door. In a few seconds I had told her what had happened. We immediately took off our jackets, rung them out, and started to thaw. Jan wrapped us in blankets. We sat in the apartment telling her the story.
“My Dad got us lost,” Marlee told Jan.
“Thanks, very much appreciated,” I told her.
“My Dad said he was Spartacus and he’d get us home,” she told Jan.
“Did I?” I asked her.
With a towel on her head, her hand in mittens, and oversized wool socks on her feet, she smiled at me and said, “I had fun, Daddy. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Earthling,” I winked. “Now, how about some hot chocolate? Who’s with me?”
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem