Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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It’s February in New York City, and I’m the only one in the family still speaking to my grandmother. That’s not quite true; my father, her son-in-law, will talk to her, too. But he can’t take off from work today, so it’s up to me to get her across town to an urgent hematologist’s appointment. My sister, my mother, my aunts, and my female cousins around the city are at the moment somehow all on bad terms with Grandma Helen, but not my father and I. Men are rare in the family: I’m the first boy born in generations; he’s one of the few husbands to survive past sixty. Rather than relate to us with the familiarity that so often leads to disagreement, Helen regards us with the polite suspicion due outsiders.
In the eighties and nineties her West Side neighborhood was a place you drove through with the car windows rolled up. Her building’s doorman was invisible then, and there was an ever-present sign on his desk: BACK IN 5. Now the area is transformed, Starbucks-colonized. When I lead her out, the doorman says, “See you, Dr. Margalith.”
She isn’t really a doctor; she never finished her PhD. But to the doorman, the pharmacist, and the waiter at the Chinese restaurant, her name is “Dr. Margalith.” Lately I’ve overheard her introducing herself on the phone as “Professor Margalith.”
My mother has given me firm instructions: “Walk to Broadway and get a cab. She’ll want to call a car to pick her up, but she needs to move a little.” There’s a lot of my mother in these sentences: her belief in the healing power of the outdoors (even if it’s just a city street); her need to control (and care for) her mother even when they’re not speaking.
Helen and I make it half a block before she has to stop and lean against a playground fence. I take the opportunity to ask why she doesn’t go to a doctor nearby. It’s a hassle getting to the East Side.
“It’s ten minutes if there’s no traffic,” she replies.
“When is there ever no traffic?”
“The East Side,” she says with finality, still out of breath, “is classier.”
To my grandmother classy is the second-highest category of praise. Superior, the highest, is reserved for things or people of German origin. (She herself is of German origin.) The East Side is classy, and so, whenever possible, she has gone there for cheese, books, clothing, and now mostly doctors. She’s lived nearly all her ninety-two years on the West Side, however. Having a home anywhere else would be, as the Margaliths say, “ridiculous.”
The snowstorm isn’t supposed to hit for hours, but flurries start to fall as we step into a cab on Broadway. Helen simply nods to the driver as if he’ll know our destination. She has a wondrous capacity for believing the universe will take care of her, though it has so often done the opposite. The driver waits. Finally she shrugs and gives him the address.
The snow is beyond flurries as we enter Central Park. Helen tells me, as she has before, about her hematologist: He writes like an angel. Went to Harvard undergraduate and medical school. Sings in the synagogue choir. Could have been a professional musician.
For Helen it’s never adequate to be adequate. A connection to greatness is required. When she admits to spending her early childhood in Newark, New Jersey, she’ll always mention roller-skating with novelist Philip Roth’s mother, as if this were the only legitimate reason to have been born on the wrong side of the Hudson River. When she worked at the Book-of-the-Month Club, she personally supervised the packages sent to members of FDR’s family. My grandfather, dead for more than forty years, was a “wonderful man. He once had dinner with Einstein.”
However remarkable Helen’s doctor might be, he’s not there when we get to his office. There’s an inch of snow on the sidewalk, and a receptionist in a purple wool hat is locking the door. “He just left,” she says, holding up a mitten covered in huge flakes, as if this were all the explanation anyone could need.
“Call him,” Helen says. “He’ll want to see me.”
I’m amazed. Helen rarely asks for anything directly; her demands are always cloaked in conditionals. She’s memorized so much biblical and psychoanalytic scholarship that subtle subtext and sideways assertion are second nature to her. My mother boasts that you can pick any page in the Torah, and Helen will recite it and offer an exegesis — something I didn’t believe until I heard her do it. (She can do the same with Freud, though nobody seems to find that boastworthy.)
The receptionist eyes us to make sure we’re serious, then unlocks the door. As I help Helen up the single step, she leans over to me and says, “Of course he’ll come back. He thinks I walk on water.” I’m skeptical; her doctor lives outside the city in very classy Westchester County. But he appears a few minutes later, sweeping Helen into the examining room as the lights flicker on overhead.
All is resolved in two minutes. There was a misunderstanding; she didn’t need to come in after all. “I’m doing wonderfully,” she tells me as the receptionist locks up again. “He says I’m perfect.”
We’ve slogged through ten feet of sidewalk slush when Helen shakes her head and says, “This is fine.” Before I can ask what she means, she has steered us into the lobby of a grand, limestone-faced apartment building. She plops onto a leather-upholstered bench, and I mutter apologies to the liveried attendant coming toward us. This is Park Avenue, where they’re not friendly to people who come in off the street. But Helen waves the man away. “My doctor next door made a special appointment for me,” she says. “He went to Harvard undergraduate and graduate.” She looks at me and blinks as if in mild surprise that I’m still here. “I guess you could get a cab if you want.”
The cabbies disagree. The snowstorm is peaking, and the few cars still on duty all have passengers. When an empty taxi stops at a red light, I tap on the window, and it rolls down an inch.
“Where to?” the driver asks.
“Seventieth and West End.”
“Crosstown? No way.”
“You can’t refuse a fare based on destination,” I say. I can see his side of it — the road’s a mess, and it’s surely worse in the park — but I still threaten to report him.
“Be my guest,” he says. The light changes, and he drives off, splashing me a little.
By now it’s getting dark. The slippery streets are packed with people leaving work early. I find a car-service card in my wallet and spend five minutes on hold while failing to hail passing cabs with my free hand. The dispatcher picks up breathlessly, and when he hears my route, he says in a rush, “Gonnabeperfectlyhonest, atleastanhour.”
“An hour’s too—” I start to say, but there’s nobody there.
During my foot-numbing, futile adventure outside, Helen has fallen asleep. She’s also somehow procured a New York Times Arts section — I suspect from the doorman, who gives me a suspicious look before remembering I’m with her.
“He’s waiting?” she asks when I nudge her awake.
I tell her I couldn’t get a cab.
“Well, you have to explain that I’m over ninety!”
There’s no one to explain it to, I say. We’ll have to take the bus. Earlier she dismissed this idea as ridiculous, but now she holds out her arm for me to lift her up.
We struggle together to a bus that everyone in the city seems to be taking, reach the West Side, and miraculously find a cab driven by a woman with a low voice and a fisherman’s cap. She tells us to ignore her OFF DUTY sign and get in. We ride the seventeen blocks in silence, the street shushing by below us.
Daylight and snowfall have both come to an end by the time we get to Helen’s apartment. Through the window, the Hudson — what’s visible of it beyond the new Trump buildings — reflects a fierce moon onto her piles of books. She snaps on the light, and we navigate to the couch.
“I can’t believe we made it,” I say.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“The traffic, the weather.”
“Oh.” She waves it all away. “It’s wonderful.”
I’m impatient to leave; I’ve got a forty-minute trip back to Brooklyn ahead of me, in soaked shoes. Guiltily I start to make an excuse, but Helen has already opened a book. Reaching for a magnifying glass, she says, “You can turn on the kettle, and that’ll be just fine.” I realize I’ve been dismissed.
I hug her goodbye, and she responds with her usual but always unexpected giggle. “We had fun today,” she says, “even if nobody would give me a seat on the bus.”
I remind her that she got a seat as soon as I asked. A teenager wearing earbuds rose wordlessly, eyeing Helen’s fake-fur hat as if it might bite.
“Well,” she shrugs, “young people today are very narcissistic.”