New Year’s Day, the beginning of Numéro Cinq‘s fourth year of publication — we have a lovely example of a set essay, a beautiful, poignant, shocking evocation of a Manhattan childhood from Tiara Winter-Schorr. NC publishes three set essays: Childhood, What It’s Like Living Here and My First Job. And by set essay, I mean an essay written to our guidelines, not exactly free form (though, of course, in the hands of a terrific writer the set essay always departs in imaginative ways from its guideline roots). We have had some wonderful results from this project. See the slider at the top of the page for more stellar examples of the Childhood series. And don’t forget that Melissa Fisher’s “My First Job” won the $1,000 3 Quark’s Daily Arts & Literature Prize in 2012. After you read Tiara’s latest contribution, take the time to browse the set essay archives and see what our contributors have accomplished.
Prologue: Exile in the City
My story begins when my grandfather slaps my pregnant 19-year-old mother to the ground in the backyard of his house on Smith Street in Glens Falls, NY. She is carrying my brother and engaged to a black man she met at college. My grandfather is a decorated World War II soldier who weds himself to German pride and American patriotism. He knocks my mother back into the muddy spring earth when she reminds him that her own mother is Filipina and his marriage is interracial. My grandmother sits on a swing, silent but crying. The child doesn’t deserve to live, he says. Get out, he says.
Days later she is in New York City, noticing that the sky here is never a uniform shade of black but rather a deep red shot through by light from yellow street lamps. She moves through the whole city in a span of nearly 40 years. My brother and I are both born in different corners of the city, but he dies in Glens Falls near Smith Street, on his first visit home, the first time the family has tried to remember itself since his birth. Almost a decade has passed. A day comes during this reunion when he is biking down a dead-end street with our cousins and is killed by a man named Ralph Midgette who is drunk behind the wheel of his vehicle. My grandfather uses his army training to run a heart pump, trying to keep my brother alive. My brother dies three days later. At Ralph’s trial, my mother asks the court for leniency because his wife will be left alone to support five children. The court grants her request.
My mother returns to the city under a red night sky to begin another period of exile, one of grief and searching. Four years later, I am a clump of cells stuck to her insides and her search is ended. She waits for me and walks through Times Square on nights when I do not stop kicking. She teaches me the city streets by the rhythm of her muffled footsteps.
I am born during an autumn storm, the kind that is composed of continuous rumbling thunder and spurts of lightening. My mother’s water breaks in bed and I am born in a flash, in less than an hour. I sleep in a bassinet next to her hospital bed instead of in the nursery down the hall with other babies. She lives only for her children but she is also an art teacher, a photographer, a runner, and a reluctant wife. My father is an art professor, a painter, a writer, and an asthmatic.
Love is always fresh between them, the kind of freshness that makes a tone of voice warm even in the coldest of times. Over the years, they pass me artifacts of their love: a gemstone belt buckle from my mother, a silver ring with the sign of Christ from my father, stacks of photographs that also seem to be memories.
Is he your real father?
People ask this rudely before I am old enough to understand. Yes, he is real from the time I am born, mopping his paint-splattered floor 17 times before my mother arrives home with me. He puts his name on me and my birth certificate so he will never be reduced to a step-father. At night he sings to me in a flat voice that is all gravel and we dance across the living room until I rub my eyes into his neck, fighting sleep. He has a sharp smell that hangs around him, a mix of turpentine for his work and peppermint candies for his indigestion. His canvasses cover the white walls, mazes of color, gobs of paint like gems and smears of nameless shades.
My mother straps me to her chest and we move from the darkroom to the bedroom to the kitchen, where steam from the pots and pans make me sweat. I remember straining my neck to watch her hands develop film in one room or chop vegetables in another. Eventually, always listening, she turns me facing outward so I can watch. I am probably a year old by now. I become fascinated with watching by the time I am two. She gives me my first camera, a black plastic Olympus with a sliding lens door, when I am two and a half. I take pictures of her from the ground up, so she is enormous like a towering religious statue.
Home is 106 Morningside Drive, a building sitting at the top of a long hill which rises above Harlem. Apartment 83 is half art studio, half home. The hallway is an endless passage that leads into a jungle. The jungle is actually a double living room with an archway that is entirely obscured by plants. Six-foot trees lean into wandering Jews that snake down into the wide leaves of a dumbcane. Then there is a green creature with leaves like giant four-leaf clovers that can cover me entirely when I am two. A palm tree bends against the ceiling, entangled with a wall of green leaves and reaching plants. The wall of deep and light green leaves separate the double living room and takes a space large enough that I can disappear in the greenery.
I learn to run like my mother. I use her white cowboy boots and round sunglasses to do it. The boots are stiff, too stiff to let my knees bend but I run anyway and I keep running the passage until I fall. I do it again. The hallway is also lined with my father’s paintings, gargantuan squares of pastel color and splashes of white and black. They are secure, like him, stuck down solidly and easy to use as a way to steady myself during a burst of running. My mother stands at the end of the hall every day, ready to help me put the boots back on or carry me away after a bad fall.
I do not hear my parents argue until I am at least ten years old, but my father moves out when I am three and does not return home until he is nearing the end of his life.
My mother and I walk relentlessly because we both have jumpy, energetic legs accustomed to sprinting. We start at Mondel’s Chocolates. The darkness under the awning is always deceptive, a bit scary but also enticing because of the window overstuffed with all three kinds of chocolates, the milky kind that slides easily to the back of my throat, the dark kind that puckers my mouth as if it is lemon, and the silky white kind that is too sweet and smells like vanilla. Rows of these multi-colored candies rise above my head so far that I can tilt my head back until I am dizzy and still see more rows of raspberry-drizzled chocolates and truffles decorated with tiny red flowers made of sugar frosting. To one side are the stacks of chocolate and to my other side is a tower of stuffed animals like jungle animals tied to a skyscraper. Gorillas at the top and tigers at the bottom are large enough to almost frighten me, but the smell of melting dark chocolate that hangs persistently is a constant reminder that this place traffics in magic and wonder. Kaleidoscopes hang at different angles from the ceiling, the paper kind that shoots simple patterns of color toward your eye and the glass kind with crystal that spins out the most intricate patterns your childish eye can detect. The world fragments into a million pieces and comes together again in shifting sequences of light and color. Look into a kaleidoscope and you are down the rabbit hole, the smell of liquid chocolate in your nose and the constantly shifting patterns of light and dark, candies and tigers and odd flashes of colored glass that tumble toward your eye like gemstones.
Kevin is a homeless man who haunts the streets between Morningside Drive and the lower sections of Broadway around Columbia University. He sings. I am holding my mother’s hand, leaving Mondel’s, and I hear a deep sound like I only hear on the rare occasions we go to church. He is a tiny man in dark clothes that are torn in different places. I remember his shoulder being exposed to the cold sunlight. My mother drops my hand to search her pockets for money as he keeps singing. The tone is as soothing as the lingering smell of melted chocolate. I see Kevin again on these walks and eventually in front of the building where I live. One year, my mother brings him upstairs to give him a piece of my birthday cake and he sings again, this time happy birthday. Days before, he intervenes between her and a potential rapist as she arrives home late from work. I know unspoken rules are broken when she brings this man into our building but I am proud and his voice takes me back to Mondel’s that cold day and the warmth of my mother’s hands.
Sometimes we stop for wings and fries at The West End Gate, an expansive dive bar where William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg notoriously performed on a regularly drunken basis. The tables are etched by knife carvings that have dates I cannot fathom, like 1968 and 1977. I remember tracing my finger into the carvings and listening to stories of poets who used to spit lines of lyrical obscenity on a small raised platform in the back of the dive. It is a place of old poems and mysterious men and loaded nachos. It is a continuous fall down the rabbit hole and into wonderland. The world opens into a kaleidoscope of shadows, colors, banquets of candies, and long concrete streets dotted with homeless singers and lost poets.
My father teaches art and architecture at Columbia University, a sprawling red-brick and white limestone array of structures. My mother earns her doctorate here so the campus is a constant in my life, coloring more memories than I can count. The lawns and open plaza with two overwhelming fountains that spout water straight into the air and back into a surrounding pool are two places on campus that substitute for a backyard. All the faculty children play here, running the noisy and shaky ramp meant for wheelchairs and pulling brightly colored flowers from the manicured grounds. I find my place at the edge of the fountains because here ladybugs collect and frequently drown. I remember bursts of red flowers, so distant from my perch on the fountain’s edge. The red shells of the ladybugs are more compelling and my favorite pastime becomes rescuing the water-logged and semi-conscious creatures from the fountain.
One autumn I bring home a rescued ladybug even though my father tells me it is dead. I keep its tiny body in a box my mother gives me. The box has a tan seashell as a top, and it is lined with mirrors on the inside and mother-of-pearl on the outside. The motionless ladybug lay there on the windowsill through a blizzard and then a thaw. When the air is warm enough, I open the box. I blink, and the ladybug vanishes. Maybe it blew out the window, my father says. Ladybugs hibernate, says my mother. She has flown away with the spring air.
Columbia sits at the border of Harlem and also slightly above it, perched at a higher elevation. This means that Harlem is first a picture out of my living room window. The late 1980s in Harlem means rows and rows of burn-out buildings. Police sirens and the Mr. Softee ice cream truck jingle are sounds from below that slip in through open windows. The windowsill is a place to sit because at night there are fires burning in the park that separates our small area from Harlem. During the day, you can see into the park and it looks like a vast and desolate wilderness. In fact, in the 1980s, it is a kind of no-man’s land reserved for junkies and homeless people. Not many people cross this border but one day I am sitting on the windowsill and three shots ring out. Suddenly my mother is there and I am carried away. Later, I hear my mother and my father talk about the black Exeter student from Harlem who was killed by a police officer for no clear reason other than the fact that he had crossed the park and started walking up toward the university. The rationale behind his killing remains controversial, a symbol of the clash between an ivory tower and the forgotten ghetto beneath it.
Harlem is not just a place of fiery nights and distant gunshots. Harlem is also the manic bustle of 125th street, where motorized cars hang from toy store ceilings. My mother buys me one with whitewall tires, 1920s style. The smell of African incense and the roasting meat from street vendors is not the smell of melting chocolate like at Mondel’s. This is the smell of the street, food and religion and grease all rising from the pavement. There are men like Kevin who live in the street but none of them sing when we pass by.
The last time I remember seeing Kevin I am coming down a winding staircase of a building that belongs to Columbia. My mother is with me and when he sees her, he tell us both that the university guards arrested him for using the bathroom to pee and this is why he has been gone so long. I am ashamed when he says this even though my mother calls them pigs for taking him away. I am ashamed of the dangerous park and the clean white buildings and the guards in their blue suits that call me honey when I pass by to go to my father’s office.
The borderland that is Morningside Heights is a collision of poor and privileged during the mid to late 1980s, but apartment 83 with its jungle of plants and windows onto other worlds is still a place of quiet love.
Gems and Bones
The first time I see a six-foot amethyst geode I am standing in a darkened room surrounded by towering gems that have been carved out in the center like narrow caves. These gems are housed by The Museum of Natural History, a place my father brings me regularly so we can stare up at the gigantic stones. Above us in a room as bright as the gem room is dark, a skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex is encircled by a metal gate as if he might escape. I am four years old and easily able to imagine a time when monsters roamed the earth but the bones are bleached white and held together by shiny chrome screws, like the skeleton hanging in my mother’s darkroom. My father and I ride the escalator between the gems and the bones, going back and forth to examine each. The dark purple hues of the amethyst and the striped green malachite are like his paintings, except the colors to do not crash and collide like they do on canvas.
My father’s smell of turpentine and oil paint comes from his hours locked away in a painting studio at the university. I visit him there a few times, shocked and delighted by the way he splashes paint at the canvas and by the way his balding head and calloused hands are spattered with color specks when he is done. There are rows and rows of wooden easels, some cracked and repaired and others freshly varnished. This is his factory, a place where his smell becomes the smell of art and safety, where canvasses appear and are hung like smashed geodes mounted on the walls.
My mother’s darkroom doesn’t scare me, even though the light is pure red most the time and the skeleton hangs in the corner against a black velvet background. The jaw is loose so she lifts me up and I snap it open and closed, as if bones can come alive and speak. I name him “skellie” and soon my mother is teaching me to develop film, shaking canisters and watching images appear like magic as the chemicals seep into the paper. The darkroom makes me dream of gypsies because of tarot cards pinned to the walls and the clutter of religious items. Pictures of my late uncle and late brother are scattered about and here in the darkroom is where I begin to learn about my brother’s death. The red light colors everything. My mother’s hair looks almost black. Family stories sound like magic tales about long-lost people. She plays Stevie Wonder songs as we work, and when we leave the darkroom, the plain white light of the living room is like wandering out of Wonderland and into reality.
My grandmother goes by “nannie,” the name French children use for their grandmothers. She doesn’t want to be called grandma. The French excuse comes up when I am fifteen and I am bold enough to ask why I cannot call her grandma. I want something irrevocable, some variant of grandmother. It is late in her life and we have fallen in love over mixed drinks and shopping trips and manicures during her rebellious months-long trips to visit me and my mother. She tells me lifetimes of stories, the life she lived as a wife and the life as a violinist denied to her.
The first time I try to learn to play the violin I am four and unhappy. I sit for a photo after the first lesson, scowling and frustrated by sore fingers. The teacher has forceful hands that pushed my fingers to reach the notes. That year my grandmother sends a miniature stuffed terrier with a note attached to his neck: “He is afraid of thunderstorms. He is lonely.” By this time my grandmother and I have met several times, but I never remember her afterwards. I remember the house on Smith Street. The attic. A violin she has refused to play since my uncle’s suicide and stories of lost chances to go study in New York City when she was young. The terrier sits near my violin at the top of my closet until the night of a storm that brightens the sky above Harlem with thick bolts of lightening like streaks of daylight breaking through. I watch from the living room window and then take the terrier out of the closet. I wonder if he is really lonely. You were born in a thunderstorm, my mother reminds me.
The house on Smith Street smells like Avon products from my grandmother’s cache of beauty products and vanilla tobacco from my grandfather’s pipe. I am about four the first time we meet. He lifts me on to his lap while I struggle to tie my shoe, frightened that he is even bigger than my own father. He tells dirty jokes and tells me stories from the Old Testament. The details of the jokes are gone but the story of Jacob’s struggle to reconcile with God in place of his own brother is with me. My grandmother is a woman who sits behind a wall of silence, even when she giggles or rises to vacuum.
I find the attic hidden behind a door with a short flight of steps that are too steep for me. The attic is a place of living ghosts. The beams of the ceiling are exposed and cobwebbed but the lighting is bright and the stacks of clutter seem to have their own logic. I look down from the beams and see a wooden bench. He sits on it, a white plaster shell of a former person. His face is unpainted and expressionless, a face made of places where bones might protrude. Night in Glens Falls is blacker than the city and the window behind him throws my reflection back at me with his and we are doubled and I am scared. But not scared enough to run and I watch him in his hunched-over position. This is the closest I have come to a likeness of my Uncle David other than in photographs, which usually show a dark-skinned man cooking or wrapped around congo drums. I have seen plaster casts before in my parents’ art studio but nothing like this, nothing that captures the hollowness of a man whose death was ruled a suicide.
After learning the smells and finding the attic, I remember leaving Smith Street for the first time. I am afraid of my grandmother. We are eating dinner and the crack of her palm against my cousin’s cheek is like the gunshots I hear back in the city, but this is closer and this is my cousin who can punch numbers into the phone pad and make it ring back like magic. I remember the sound and feeling sick in my stomach. My mother’s voice was louder than the slap and angrier. I don’t remember when we left, only standing in the street facing my godmother while my mother and grandfather talked on the porch. My grandmother and cousin did not come out of the house. The day was cold, the kind of barren cold that sets in after Christmas when nearly every day is the sky is grey or white. My grandmother goes silent, along with my grandfather, for four years.
When I meet my grandmother again I am ten years old and I think of this attic in a home where she raised seven children and gave her hands over from music to ushering her children and grandchildren in and out of life. I am 15 before she ever mentions death to me and then it is only to say, “I live with it every day.” My grandfather is at her side when she says it and he nods but neither look at me.
By the time I am ten, my grandmother is living in central Florida, a lush overgrown place where alligators wander onto highways and lizards dart across sun-scorched grass. I visit with my mother twice, once taking a road trip down the east coast on our way. The sun toasts my skin two shades of darker each time I am there. My grandmother is quiet in Florida, nearly silent, just as she had been in Glens Falls. My grandfather still tells Old Testament stories, although now his mornings begin with whiskey. The house is sprawling and modular this time instead of brick. The southern sun pushes through every curtain until even shadows disappear. My grandmother wears black boots, pointy and shiny like a witch. She stares at them so much in her silences that I start to stare with her. She stares at them especially when my grandfather speaks. Gook, he says to her, and she never talks back. He says it one day when we are sealed indoors, hiding from 103 degrees of spring heat. I am hot and angry about this place where people use racial slurs and the heat does not relent for even a day. Where’d you learn to hate? I ask my grandfather. Why am I even in your house, old man? I think to myself. He waits for my mother to chastise me but she doesn’t. When he answers, he does not tell me why he hates:
At the height of my military career, I am an intelligence officer over a battalion of men. I make decisions in a split fraction of a second because men’s lives depend on me. One day I am guarding my camp and an Asian woman is pushing her baby carriage, back and forth, back and forth, over a bridge. As she passes, explosions begin that carry through the camp. I wait long enough to lose at least one man. When she is within sight, I stand up and shoot her in the head at long-range. I make sure the baby dies with her. I had to do it.
Days later, a storm takes Florida that is mythic in its darkness and battering rain. Tiny frogs stick to the windows with suction cup feet. I am afraid to go outside. I sit on my grandmother’s bed with her, her white German Shepherd, and my mother. I listen to her tell my mother that the war still lives in my grandfather so vividly that he has slept every night with a gun under his pillow since he came home in the 1940s. The gun points toward her head and does every night, she says, but she is also pulling out her violin as she talks. The antique violin, casketed in a peeling case she has kept since tenth grade, is made of wood so old that I count the tiny cracks along the edges when she opens the case. The story of being forbidden to attend Juilliard by her mother stays with me. She would not be a mother or a wife if she had been allowed to pursue music, she says. She promises to give me the violin then, and silently I pledge to learn to play.
The second time I try to play the violin I am using my grandmother’s instrument and she is flying between New York City and Florida with uncharacteristic bursts of independence. I am 15 and for a moment her silences are punctuated by the roar of engine jets and the squeaking of her violin bow in my hands. My grandfather makes one trip with her and lays a shotgun across my mother’s kitchen table. I wander in and out to get a snack before I realize what he is saying. No one will break my family up or take my wife, he is saying to my mother. The violin is yours, she is saying to me as she packs.
I never learn to play my grandmother’s violin. But it stays with me, always with me, shrouded in its case from 1935, like a living memory. I am still exiled in New York City but also rooted here now, in this city where my grandmother was forbidden to go and where my mother was left to wander alone. When my grandmother leaves, passing her violin to me, I know I will never see her again. And here, in accepting what is given to me, my childhood draws to a close.
Tiara Winter-Schorr decided to become a writer 12 years ago in one of Douglas Glover’s classes at the University at Albany-SUNY. She received a BA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and is beginning an MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the summer of 2013. She lives in Manhattan with her mother. See also her earlier essay “What It’s Like Living Here.”