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Your mother died of lung cancer when you were seven years-old. You have two snapshots of her taken in Central Park. In the first, it’s May, 1952, and you’re about a year-and-a-half-old. She’s sitting on a blanket as you totter in front of her wearing a white sweater and baggy white pants. You’re holding a key in one hand and a can of something in the other. Your ears stick out like two large sails. In the second photograph taken a month later, she’s stands on the grass holding your hand as you eat an apple. She wears a dark blouse, light colored skirt with a floral pattern, and high heels. In both pictures she’s almost smiling.
You moved from Wales to New York when you were a baby. All you knew as you grew up on the Lower West Side of Manhattan were pavements and asphalt. The only trees you saw were on a black and white television. You loved the smell of the grass in Central Park, and when you discovered the carousel you thought you were in heaven. “Please, Daddy, please,” you begged and got to ride up and down on a beautiful, white horse, up and down, up and down. When you were in the park another time and couldn’t find it, your father said it’s a magic carousel. It turns invisible when it gets tired so it can take a nap. Looking back, you realize that he probably didn’t have an extra quarter for you to ride it. Today it costs more than three bucks.
When you were twenty-one and newly sober, you asked your father, “Lung cancer, really? She was only thirty-three.”
He hesitated…“No, pills and alcohol.”
“I didn’t want to tell you, afraid it would knock you off your wagon.”
He was right. Your wagon got kind of shaky.
You moved to South Jersey for a couple of years. Half a century later, you’re still there. You stayed sober. You’ve done all right. You’re semiretired and work part-time at a university that’s named a writing institute after you. This week you’re at a hotel in New York near the Port Authority. You write during the day, and in the evening, you go to a show. You’ve been writing in hotels for more than thirty years. You love the sameness, the blandness, the lack of distractions that allows you to concentrate. The only people you talk to on these writing retreats are the ones who serve you food.
You wake up at 5 a.m., turn on the hotel mini pot to caffeinate yourself, and begin to write. After working for a few hours, you take a break, gorge yourself at the breakfast buffet, then decide to walk it off along 8th Avenue. You pass a not-so-gentle-looking gentleman’s club near 42nd Street where you’re blocked by a twerking Adonis who wears tight pink briefs, gold sneakers and nothing else. He swings his hips at you and snaps his waistband singing, “Come in, Baby. Come in.” Too much, too early, you think. Maybe you should turn around and walk back to your hotel. Instead, you descend into the subway and take an uptown C to 86th Street and walk into the park.
You find an empty bench in the shade with a view of the reservoir. You’re glad you came. You haven’t been in the park in years, maybe not since The Gates, Christo’s installation of orange…were they orange?…cloth-covered “Gates.” You knew it was impossible, but you wanted to walk through all seven thousand of them.
Because your father couldn’t take care of you by himself, he sent you to a boarding school on Staten Island. You knew they were supposed to hit you when you were bad, but they hit you when you weren’t bad. They hit you for not finishing your dinner because you were feeling sick. When you threw up on your plate, they hit you again and made you eat your vomit. And because you didn’t know how to make your bed, they made you take off your clothes and hit you. Every morning. Take off your clothes and hit you. You knew you were a little person, but they made you feel tiny.
You missed your daddy. You missed your mommy. You were learning about hell in religion class and thought you were in it, but you were confused. You thought you had to die first to get there, and although you didn’t remember dying, you weren’t sure.
After you ran away from the school a second time, an aunt and uncle felt sorry for you and took you in. On the ferry from Staten Island to Brooklyn, they bought you a hot dog and Coke and a Casper the Friendly Ghost comic book. You wondered why Casper didn’t go back to the people who loved him before he died. Instead, he wandered around looking for new people. Because you thought you might be dead, you were afraid that you would have to wander around like Casper did. Your father remarried three years later, so you moved in with him and your new stepmother in Queens.
Years pass. You grow older.
Before your senior year in high school you get a summer job filing stacks of expired policies at an insurance company on 66th Street and Broadway. You ask a file girl out on a date to the Woolman Skating Rink, your first concert, to hear Spanky and Our Gang sing “Sunday Will Never Be the Same.” You and the file girl become a thing, a little thing, a bumpy little thing.
After work a dozen or so clerks hike two blocks to the Sheep Meadow to play softball. You pass a deli where you stock up on beer. You’re good for two quarts of Ballantine. You lie on a blanket with the girl. She sips. You guzzle. You kiss. She sips. You guzzle. You kiss.
Time to play ball. You split into two teams, “Collision” vs. “Personal Injury,” and use a manhole for home plate. Who knew there were manholes in Central Park? One of your teammates has to pee and somehow manages to lift the cover off the manhole. He climbs down, relieves himself, climbs back up and puts the cover on wrong. You’re next at bat, too blitzed to notice it. You swing, hit the ball, and as you run toward first base, you step on the loose manhole cover which swivels up, and you fall, your crotch landing on its edge. Game over.
File girl walks you to the restrooms near Bethesda Fountain so you can check the damage. You’re hurt, not emergency room hurt, but go to the doctor the next day hurt. On the way back she tells you the walkway you are on is the only straight path in Central Park. They planned it that way. It never occurred to you that someone planned the park. You thought like everything else it just happened.
You quit drinking after New Year’s Eve because you get so drunk, you frighten yourself. You last three weeks without a beer or a shot, and you’re at it again. You and file girl see each other during the school year. Even though you’re drinking more and more, which pisses her off, she agrees to go to your prom with you. A few days before, you cut school and spend a drunken afternoon walking around the park. You talk to a charismatic mandrill at the zoo. Then you walk over to 59th Street where the horse and buggies hang out. You decide to find out what it costs for a romantic, after-prom ride through the park. You ask a horse, “How much do you charge?” He doesn’t answer. The driver yells at you to leave his horse alone. You say, “It’s rude to interrupt me while I’m talking to my friend.”
“Get the fuck away from my horse,” he yells, as he picks up his whip and climbs down from his seat. You wonder if you could take him, but you’ve never won a fight in your life, so you run away.
Prom night comes and file-girl begs you, “Please don’t drink.” “Don’t worry,” you say, “I’ll be good.”
And you are good! The prom is at the Americana Hotel, where a few days earlier The Beatles held a press conference. They’re starting their own record company and calling it Apple. You don’t care about apples, but you like the Beatles, so right on! After the prom, you go to the Copacabana and watch the fancy show while sipping overpriced Coca Colas. What you wouldn’t do for a shot or two of vodka. Then you ride back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry, back and forth, making out with file-girl who tells you she’s proud of you for not drinking. You ask her to go steady. She says yes and wears your high school ring.
A week later she takes you to a graduation party in Washington Heights where someone offers you a drink. “No thanks,” you say, refusing it. At least you think you refuse it.
You wake up the next morning on file girl’s front lawn, her father spraying you with the garden hose. “If you come near my daughter again,” he says. “I’ll shoot you.” Your ring is in your pocket. You never see file-girl again, but a few years later you hear from one friend that she becomes a nun, and from another, that she’s married and has five kids. You believe them both.
You graduate high school. You go to college. You flunk out. You go to a second college. You flunk out. You go to a third college. You flunk out. Fuck it! You get a job tending bar. Now you’re a professional drinker. It’s the Sixties, so of course you do drugs. You’re afraid to drop acid because two friends have had bad trips: one never returns and is in a nursing home, the other burns down his house. This doesn’t stop you from doing mescaline. You make the mistake of swallowing a tab before seeing Easy Rider at a theater on the Upper East Side. When Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda get their heads blown off by a shotgun, you can’t stop screaming. You leave the theater and walk into Central Park to clear your own head. An enormous insect with one bright eye chases you. The roar of its wings follows you as you run out of the park, find your car, and somehow manage to drive without crashing, over the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge, along Queens Boulevard, Woodhaven Boulevard, Crossbay Boulevard, home.
“Peter, come up here. I want you to watch this,” Your stepmother says.
“No, Ma. I’m going to bed.”
So, you trudge up the steps and sit down, wondering if that giant insect has followed you inside the house.
You watch. It’s a talk show. David Susskind is interviewing a druggie. You nod off.
“Pay attention,” she says, shaking you awake.
You look up at the television and see you and your stepmother sitting on a couch across from David Susskind.
“So, Peter,” Susskind says, “Your mother suspects that you’re taking drugs. What would you like to tell her?”
“Leave me the fuck alone, man. I just wanna go to bed.” You can’t believe you just said “Fuck” on television.
“She’s concerned, Peter. She thinks you’re screwing up your life.”
“Please, Mr. Susskind,” you beg, “I’m tired. I just wanna sleep.”
A few days later you learn that the police have been using helicopters to patrol Central Park at night in an attempt to reduce crime. You figure that the bright eye that chased you was probably just a spotlight. Probably.
Time to get back to your hotel, back to work. You lift yourself off the bench, and as you walk toward the Subway, swirling colors distract you. You see five women wearing saris kicking a soccer ball. They fall all over each other, laughing. They’re rolling on the grass in hysterics. You feel as if you’ve stumbled into a scene from Bend It Like Beckham. As you watch them, you begin to laugh. You laugh like you haven’t laughed in a hundred million years. You are grateful for your life. You never want to stop.
Peter E. Murphy
Peter E. Murphy was born in Wales and grew up in New York City where he operated heavy equipment, managed a nightclub and drove a taxi. He is the author of eleven books and chapbooks of poetry and prose. Excerpts from his memoir-in-progress won the 2018 Wilt Nonfiction Chapbook Prize and the 2019 Arch Street Press First Chapter Memoir Prize. His poems and essays have appeared in The Common, Diode, Guernica, Hippocampus, The New Welsh Review and elsewhere. As the founder of Murphy Writing of Stockton University, he leads workshops for writers and teachers in the United States and abroad.