There is a lot to be said for being a city child. You mature quicker, are more sophisticated, and are not at all afraid to do things from a young age that upset many suburbanites – like eat in a restaurant or ride public transportation alone. All New York City kids of a certain generation know what “coffee regular” means and expect to let the people exit the bus before they attempt to enter; they stand on the right of the escalator and walk on the left and are well aware that there is no point in running for anything (bus, train, taxi, boyfriend) because if you miss one, another will be along any minute. All of those lessons have served me well as an adult.
Of course, city kids also become cynical quite young and they often have completely unrealistic notions about how life really works. I don’t mean Park Avenue children – since God knows I was not raised in that rarified atmosphere – but even little girls born in the Bronx develop skewed perceptions about exactly what is normal in American life.
One of my grandfather’s favorite stories about me as a child concerns my love for and identification with animals. Since we lived in an apartment we didn’t have pets (at least not since my sister slid her turtle down the slide in De Voe Park and we never saw him again) but I knew all about animals because we lived only a few blocks from the Bronx Zoo and went there with my mother quite often; all things considered, my grandfather may well have been among those people who said we went there too often.
Right after I learned to talk, I did so with a vengeance, expressing my opinion early and often. I awoke early from a nap one hot summer afternoon and began jumping up and down in my crib. I clutched the wooden slats in my sweaty, little, fists and began shouting, “Gampa! Gampa!” hoping that my urgency would communicate to my grandfather who was spending his sole day off work babysitting twenty-two-month-old me. My grandfather was – and remains – among the great loves of my life and I wanted to be with him, snug in his lap watching the Yankees on TV or clutching his hand and toddling after him to the sweet shop for chocolate ice cream.
“Hey,” his head peered around the corner into my tiny room. “What’s all the hollering about?”
“Gampa!” My voice grew joyful.
“Yes?” He inched closer but didn’t reach for me.
“Gampa?” I was puzzled; why was he standing directly in front of me? Why didn’t he pick me up? Why wasn’t I free?
“Yes?” he asked again, obviously hoping to encourage me to articulate my thoughts.
“Gampa!” I shrieked, banging on the crib slats. “Get me out of this monkey cage!”
He doubled over in laughter forcing me to stay caged even longer. Finally, gasping, he lifted me from the crib. After putting on my socks and tying my Keds, he suggested walking around the block to get some ice cream.
On the way home from the candy store, my grandfather heard hoof beats and turned to glance over his shoulder at the battalion of mounted NYPD officers on their way to Yankee Stadium for crowd control after the game. Thinking how much I would enjoy seeing the horses, he tugged gently on my hand and crouched beside me. I tilted my smeared and sticky face upward and looked into his gentle blue eyes.
“Laura, listen,” he whispered. I held my head still and strained to hear.
“Do you know what that sound is?” he asked.
I bobbed my head up and down.
“What?” he asked.
“Hoofs,” I answered, wide-eyed.
“And what animal has hoofs and makes that sound?”
He stared at me. “Zebras,” he repeated.
I bobbed my head up and down again. ‘We saw them at the zoo. One was chasing the other ones and they made that noise when they ran.” I strained to look toward Fordham Road. “Are there zebras out there, Gampa?”
He sighed slightly. “No, I think we missed them.”
“Oh.” I returned to my dripping chocolate cone. It didn’t really matter; I could see the zebras any day I wanted, nearly.
Later that night, my grandfather came into my room as my mom was getting me ready for bed. After switching on my Tinkerbelle nightlight, I heard my grandfather say to my mother as they exited the room, “You have to start taking that kid somewhere else and not to the zoo so much. She hears hoof beats and immediately thinks zebras.”
It has been fifty-five years since that night. I continue to love my grandfather – now long gone – and I when I hear hoof beats I still think zebras.