I believe some people are sensitive about mindless promiscuity, even a single sentence of it.
The year was 1939, in the merry month of May, and New York City was preparing itself to deliver what some hoped might be its favorite character. St. Vincent’s Hospital was the venue of choice—right in the heart of Greenwich Village, where the competition for created characters was fierce. And sure enough, here she came, though not as quickly or effortlessly as would have been ideal. Alicia, with four syllables, after a popular Russian ballerina of that era, was to be the name of this slippery little lump around whom the hopes and aspirations of so many were clustered. And as she was carried to her fourth-floor walkup apartment on MacDougal Street, the pigeons cooed their welcome.
The hopes and aspirations would have been familiar to any Greenwich-Village-born kid of that era: A subscription to the New Yorker for a first birthday present; a copy of Das Kapital for the second. To be taken to the Met for Don Giovanni by age ten. To attend P.S.41 until the reality of doing so caused the victim to pray s/he might be sent to the New School on 10th with a scholarship. That the Spanish Civil War might continue long enough to enlist. That Dad would be able to walk home from the White Horse Tavern without falling down. The distant, shimmering, unreal future should suggest some Ivy League school, even though they were all created for The Rich. (If a girl, Vassar might do; if musically inclined, Julliard.)
Our friend Alicia felt these expectations intensely. By the time she started school, which was indeed P.S. 41with its chicken-wired windows, she could sense them as part of her blood. The Bohemian life was a world within a larger world; it had its own hierarchy, value system, and politics. The day Alicia started kindergarten, she wore a blue velvet dress embroidered by her mother, and her hair was as long as Alice-in-Wonderland’s. In the first grade, she pooped in her pants because her delicacy made it impossible for her to raise two fingers for ‘number two.’ By grade three, the teacher was giving her a portion of the class to teach.
And by grade four, the city of New York leaned back with a sigh of relief: Alicia would not disappoint. The character she was destined to become had taken form and was speeding its way to fulfillment. NYU? Nay, how about Columbia? The city’s streets might be a blowing sea of discarded ice cream wrappers, bums might lie under newspapers in doorways, filthy yellow buses and checkered taxis might honk and rattle their way through thronged intersections, but it was children like Alicia who could be depended upon to show the world that New York was now, in the wake of World War II, the beating heart of world culture.
However, the best-laid plans of mice and men—well, John Steinbeck had written a book on this very observation just a few years ago. A best-laid plan requires a mind that can see into the future as well as learn from the past; participants who are un-distractibly on board; and a fully cooperative universe. Take, for example, the hope that Dad will be able to walk home from the White Horse Tavern. Yes, for a few years he managed this achievement without difficulty. But as his appetite for spiritual stimulation grew, his legs seemed to weaken, his feet stumble over each other, and his sense of direction become blurred. Before long, he found the ten-block journey to the tavern exhausting. Unnecessary, too, when spirits could be purchased just down the street and brought home, to be consumed in leisure at a fraction of the cost—and cost was a consideration now, since this leisurely consumption had made it hard for Dad to get to work next morning.
What about Mama, then? Surely there was something she could do to maintain the illusion that the plan was still well laid. And really, in a way she was doing that very thing. Being an unusually beautiful woman with an appetite for admiration every bit as large as Dad’s for the bottle, she could most often be found in one of three local ateliers, posing for one of three currently popular painters—not for pay, naturally; for Art. Art demands this! It was essentially for the sake of Art that these two parents came to New York in the first place, rather than staying in their respective Art-free towns, where well-laid plans are more likely to stay that way.
Now, the very city was beginning to shift and grumble: This could not go on. How could Alicia, the hope of eight million people, manage to get to school in the morning, without breakfast, in wrinkled plaid skirts and crooked white collars, soot-speckled socks, pencil-case filled with broken lead and eraserless pencils? Where would homework be done, even if one were to push aside the dishes from yesterday’s meals and the day’s before? Who would help her solve problems such as ninety-seven subtracted from two hundred forty-three? And how could she shut her ears to the words—bitter, accusatory, laden with sorrow—that filled the apartment every night when the lights were out?
“We’ve decided you are going to live with your granddad and grandma in Vermont for a while,” said Alicia’s mother. The pitch of her voice was as if she were saying, “We’ve decided we are going to take you to F.A.O. Schwartz and buy you anything you want!” And Alicia, who in some ways was no less venial than other children not raised in New York City, could hardly wait to get started packing. Into her little suitcase went her black patent-leather shoes, her roller skates, her rolled-up map of Homeric Greece, her (uncut) copy of Dante’s Paradisio, five coloring books, and a 36-box of crayons. Then up to Pennsylvania Station she went, waiting for the right train to come roaring in with its black-smoking stack. And the city sighed with apprehension.
It's amazing how few of those belongings that one needs in New York are appropriate for living in Vermont. Roller skates? There’s no pavement! Patent-leather shoes? Dear, no one wears those here, they’re ridiculous, let’s go into town and buy you some Buster Browns. Even a four-syllable name is highly suspicious and purposely can’t be pronounced. Alicia wished her name was Diane, as her next-door neighbor’s was, but at least she could be Ally. And when one of the farm boys laughed and called her Ally-cat, then that’s who she was.
Years passed. Ally-cat graduated from high school, ranking seventh in a class of twenty because she never did figure out how to solve problems of subtraction, multiplication, or worst of all long division. After the ceremony, she went to a party with two senior girls and three senior boys. There was beer, and Ally knew how to drink it. That third boy, she more or less knew what to do with him, too, though she didn’t do it any too far because still, way in the back of her mind, there was that shimmer of Vassar; there was that plaintive Greenwich Village song, like a gypsy violin: Don’t forget—never forget!
Many more years passed. Vermont was old hat. San Francisco became at last Spokane, Washington. Boys were dated, men were slept with, children were born and lugged about. The gypsy violin grew fainter and fainter, finally disappearing altogether in the strident whang of the steel-string guitar Ally used in her roadhouse gigs. She still wore hand-embroidered dresses, but that’s because it was the 60’s. The skirts of them came to the tops of her thighs. It’s true that skirts in New York also came to the tops of thighs, but the difference between rural hippies and the hippies of Manhattan was delicately indelible. Skirts, boots, accents, songs, politics, even cigarette brands—New York closed its eyes in surrender; alright, Alicia was lost. She was never coming back. Why wait around, freezing in winter, sweltering in summer, noisy and frantic, watching and wondering, where is she? What happened? There are plenty of kids who stayed and did what they were supposed to do. Never mind that Alicia, with all her syllables, was the very, very best, the most hoped-for, the most promising, the ideal. A city like New York can’t wait forever.
More years passed. Children grew up and left, though not for New York. Ally raised cattle, and she slaughtered and ate them. She tried out two more husbands. She learned to fly an airplane, and then she bought one. She choked her dog to unconsciousness so she could pull porcupine quills out of its throat. She panned for gold and found quite a bit, but the assayer didn’t give her much for it. She read three Henry James novels and remembered that she had never forgotten New York. She drove a ten-year-old Cadillac Fleetwood and installed a cassette player so she could listen to music as she cruised along: Ratt, Scorpions, Dokken. Her hair was as long as her earlobes now and usually red. She got a tattoo—a fairly large one, conspicuous on her right shoulder. When she got caught smoking pot with some other musicians in an alley behind the club, she offered to go to jail, but no one was willing to send her there.
Then, at last, Ally was old. Very old, though old is relative. Closer to ninety than eighty. And now we must shift uncomfortably into present tense, because this story is not over. She lies bundled in her single cot and has dreams; more often than not, they are of New York. She claims she never asked for these dreams, never summoned them. It’s more as if they just come, because they want her. She sleeps, and in dream the ice cream wrappers blow across the sidewalk. The circle in Washington Square is full of water, and ducks, and half-naked children, and floating popsicle sticks. Every square of pavement is different from the rest, and the ornate manhole covers are rust-orange around the edges. Taxi drivers lean on their horns for relaxation. The Women’s Detention Center is across the street from the chicken-wired windows of P.S. 41; ladies in long satin dresses are being unloaded from a black wagon. The 6th grade boys play ball right outside.
The five flights of stairs to her old apartment on University Place are still thickly padded with old holey carpet, and the railings still lean outward into the dark. Mama and Dad are waiting at the top—they always have been! And why wouldn’t they? Their creation—their favorite character—the person they came to New York in 1939 to create—is on her way up.