Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Learning to Knit (Late February 2003)

Five days after the fire, Sam and I return to our apartment to begin the process of sorting. We had envisioned sorting through ashes, but what we encounter is the apartment that we evacuated last Sunday. The walls are there, the floors, the photos, the rugs, the books, the sofa, the computer, the TV, the potatoes on the stove, the kale in the sink. We tell ourselves we are lucky, that everything is intact. Then it becomes clear that everything is covered in that thick black film of smoke residue, a residue that permeates, a residue that doesn’t come off with dusting or washing or scouring or three cycles at the laundromat. We tell ourselves we are lucky, that our family is intact, and the rest is just stuff. The process of sorting turns into the process of dumping.

Once my possessions are depersonalized into stuff, the dumping process is alarmingly easy. I am ruthless: hardcover books are saved; paperbacks, unless they are school books, are dumped. The dining room table and my bed frame are saved; the IKEA sofas are dumped. Photographs, some framed, some in albums, most shoved haphazardly into kitchen drawers – saved. The massive collection of record albums I have been hanging onto without a turntable to play them on – dumped. The closets are swept of every article of clothing except two leather jackets, my wedding dress, and a blue sequined number that belonged to my mother. Everything else goes in big black garbage bags with the uncooked kale and the semi-boiled potatoes from Sunday supper.

I am zipping along, almost exhilarated, when I come to my yarn. Bags and Bags of soft wooly string, collected over nearly twenty years of knitting. For me, knitting is more than a hobby – it is my comfort, my bubble bath, my martini, my escape. I feel an enormous sense of satisfaction in taking two pointy sticks and those balls of soft wooly string and tangling up something tangible. As I toss out my yarn stash, the thick black film of smoke residue embedded in the soft wooly string, I forget about how lucky I am, and I weep selfishly over my stuff.

* * *

When people approach me while I’m knitting in public, they sometimes ask, “Why do you knit?” My stock answer: “What else would I do with these pointy sticks?” More often they approach with a comment: “I could never do that.” I always assure them they can: “If you could learn to read, you can learn to knit.”

Many of my friends who knit have warm fuzzy memories of learning at their mother’s knee, of knitting as an art passed lovingly down through generations. My own mother thought knitting was a colossal waste of time, that perfectly good sweaters were easily obtainable from the sales rack at Lord and Taylor’s. I was thirty-three years old when I finally learned how to knit after several abortive attempts to teach myself from incomprehensible diagrams in books. I signed up for an adult education class at the old Stuyvesant High School on 21st Street, where my teacher was Mrs. Jacqueline DuPres.

Mrs. DuPres was a tiny, shockingly buxom woman who teetered on 3-inch heels. Warm and fuzzy she was not, but for her day job, Mrs. DuPres taught typing and remedial reading in the NYC public school system, which was part of what made her a perfect knitting teacher. Reading is the purposeful untangling of letters to decipher a pattern; knitting is the purposeful tangling of yarn to make a pattern. For Mrs. DuPres, process was more important than product. The typist in Mrs. DuPres loved the mechanics of knitting. She reminded us again and again that there are only two stitches to master, the knit and the purl, and that once those two stitches are accomplished, they can be combined in an infinite number of ways. In the first classes, Mrs. DuPres scoffed at the magazine patterns we brought to her, hoping to make a recognizable garment. Instead, she had us practice on square after square, ripping them out and starting over again until our stitches were second nature.

In reading, the work moves from left to right; in knitting, from right to left. The knitter starts with a needle full of stitches in the left hand, moves the stitches one by one to the right needle, switches hands and starts again. The needle in the right hand pokes through the front of the stitch on the left hand needle. The yarn is wrapped around the back, coming down between the two needles. The right needle swivels under the left and lifts the stitch up and off. Over and over, Mrs. DuPres recited a rhyme in her nasal singsong, a mantra that runs through my head to this day whenever I pick up my pointy sticks: “In through the front door, sneak around the back, peek through the window, and off jumps Jack.” As the stitches became second nature, knitting became a form of meditation.

Mrs. DuPres taught us to read our knitting, to correct our mistakes. By the end of the course, she allowed us to tackle commercial patterns but actively encouraged us to forget the directions and make up our own. She warned us off scarves, counseling that we would die of boredom before they were ever finished. My first completed, self-designed garment ws a tiny pair of overalls for my tiny son, the beloved baby I gladly fled every Wednesday night to escape to Mrs. Dupres’ class. No pastels for my Charlie – I swaddled him in black yarn shot through with flecks of red, blue and yellow. Sixteen years later, Charlie’s overalls were the one piece of knitting I saved in the aftermath of the fire; I’ve washed them several times but they still smell like they’ve spent the weekend at a Boy Scout jamboree.

* * *

I am lucky to belong to a generous community of people who have rallied around us since the fire. I’ve been offered clothing, food, and shelter, but the most wonderful gift I’ve received is the bag of yarn a woman I barely know left in my office, a woman I barely know but who knits, and who knows what a fellow knitter needs. The other night, when I woke up in a borrowed bed in a borrowed apartment, I retreated to the borrowed sofa with my two pointy sticks and a ball of wooly string. “In through the front door, sneak around the back, peek through the window, and off jumps Jack.” This time, I’m making a scarf. Maybe by the time I finish it I’ll be back home.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Sunday Supper (February 2, 2003)

Mr. Fliegel, my sixth grade teacher, once told me that you can’t write a story where you put a turkey in the oven without taking the turkey out of the oven before the end of the story. This story starts with Sunday supper. The main course in question is not a turkey, but a potato and kale casserole. It is seven o’clock on the evening of February 2, 2003. Sam Decker is in the kitchen preparing dinner for the family. He is grating cheese on a warped wooden cutting board on the counter next to the stove, where the potatoes are boiling. The kale is washed and in a colander in the sink, ready to go. A buttered white casserole sits next to the cutting board.

It is a Sunday evening like so many others. Sam Decker is in the kitchen; the other Deckers are spread around the seven room apartment. From front to back, from youngest to oldest: Dinah is doing homework in the dining room, her books and papers strewn across the polished table, headphones over her ears. Henry and Charlie are in their bedroom glued to a video game. I am in my bedroom curled up on the beat-up sofa, half of my attention on the files I am reading for work, the other half listening to the television, waiting for the stop watch tick that signals the start of 60 Minutes. The three cats, Judy and Lola and Betty, are lounging on my bed. Somewhere near the front of the apartment, the dogs, Pink and Miss Joan Rosen, bark a “someone is at the door” warning. And Sam’s voice moves down the hall, calm but pitched a notch too high. “OK,” he says, “Everybody get out. There’s a fire.”

We gather shoes and coats and leash the dogs and go out in the hallway. With our neighbors we move towards the stairs. There is smoke coming out of the apartment at the head of the staircase, and the firemen are already there, and they tell us to go back. I am the daughter of a cop; I respect authority. It is not until much later, in the middle of that first night spent on someone’s beat up sofa, that I think about the World Trade Center, about Tower Two, about the people who stayed at their desks while the world collapsed beneath their feet.

So we go back to our apartment. We wander, calm but pitched a notch higher. I try to remember what to do in a fire. It seems silly to crawl, so I wet towels; I wait for the firemen. The fire escape is in the front of the apartment, off Dinah’s room. The smoke is stronger there. The firemen said to stay. I wait for the firemen. I wet more towels. We move the kids and the dogs towards the back of the apartment. I go to the closet for the cat carrier, then remember I gave it away. I can’t find the cats. I wet more towels.

I move to the front of the apartment to block the door. It’s only been five minutes since the firemen told us to go back but the smoke is so thick I can barely see, I can barely breathe. As I stuff my towels under the door I glance up, and the calm leaves me as I see thick black smoke billowing through the walls like fog rolling down a hill. I cannot see, I cannot breathe. I take a lungful of smoke, thick black and viscous as oil slicked water. The calm returns as I realize I have to keep my children alive, keep them from drowning in smoke.

We gather – Sam and me and Charlie and Henry and Dinah and Pink and Joan – in the boys’ bedroom at the very back of the apartment. Sam is on the cell phone. I hear him use the word “trapped.” Dinah is weeping for Betty, her favorite cat. I clutch her hand tightly, afraid she will bolt into the smoke. I am beginning to make choices. I assure her that Judy and Lola and Betty have found a safe spot, that cats are smart, that they will be fine. If I am lying, it is a white lie. To keep calm I have to believe it is the truth.

I herd my children to the window, where there is air but no escape. We are on the sixth floor, the top floor. The only fire escape is in the front of the apartment, drowned in smoke. I glance over my shoulder and see the smoke creeping under the bedroom door. I lean out the window and call for help. There is a crowd below staring at me screaming, and I feel silly. I lock eyes with a fireman on the ground. “Stay where you are,” he calls. His voice is calm. I stop screaming and wait for the firemen.

I have watched news footage of people being evacuated from apartments on fire truck ladders. I have watched with fleeting interest, my main though being “I could never do that.” But the thing is, when the ladder is there, when there is smoke at your back, you do it. When there is smoke at your back, even if you have no respect for authority, you do exactly as you are told. The hard part is making choices, realizing that only one person goes down the ladder at a time. The hard part is deciding who goes first.

Last summer, on vacation, the Deckers devised a system for taking showers when returning sandy from a day at the beach. We went in age order, youngest to oldest, with Dinah going first.

My fireman’s name is Patrick, and his eyes are icy blue and calm. He takes Dinah down the ladder, then Henry, then Charlie. And then it is me and Sam. I am one year and five months older than Sam, and last summer, a thousand summers ago, I always took the last shower. Now, he gently pushes me towards Patrick. “I’m the Dad,” says Sam Decker, and makes me go before him.

Patrick talks to me all the way down the ladder. He grabs one ankle and places it on a rung, then the other. “Don’t look down,” he says. I have no idea how long it takes. I feel silly in my pajamas and heavy coat, shamed in Patrick’s icy calm presence. “I’m sorry my butt’s in your face,” I babble, “it’s not my best angle.” “Don’t look down,” he says, placing one ankle on a rung, then the other.

I join my children on the ground. Dinah had been weeping as she went through the window in Patrick’s arms, but now she is calm. Someone has wrapped her in a blanket, put a cap on her head at a jaunty angle, handed her a Coke. A young girl I have never seen before and will probably never see again hugs me, offers water, a place to sleep. In the days to come I will continue to be awed by simple acts of kindness from strangers.

Dinah is ten, but her eyes are as wide and wondering as a two-year-old as she looks up the ladder at her father, framed in smoke at the window, waiting for Patrick. Charlie and Henry are 16 and 10, respectively. In two years, Charlie will be old enough to fight in a war. If we lived in Louisiana, Henry would be two years away from a learner’s permit. Now, on the ground, staring at their father framed in smoke, these are my babies.

The crowd keeps a respectful distance as my children and I watch Patrick guide Sam down the ladder. I note with inordinate pride that Sam needs no one to grab and place his ankles; he moves swiftly and steadily to join his family on the ground, away from the smoke. Reunited, the Deckers stand at the corner of 181st Street and Fort Washington Avenue, in front of the churchyard, across the street from our burning building. The flames, thankfully, are on the courtyard side; we can’t see them. We watch the smoke billowing from the windows of what I hope we can still call our home.

Patrick does not go back for the dogs; firemen make choices, too. We respect the firemen and watch the smoke billow from Dinah’s room, from the dining room, from the living room, from the kitchen, from the bathroom. Sam tells us that he put Pink and Joan on the bottom bunk of the boys’ bed and told them to stay. He assures us the smoke isn’t so bad in that back bedroom, that they’ll be OK. If he is lying, it is a white lie.

Sam takes the children to a neighbor’s house down the street and comes back to watch the smoke. A fireman I have never seen before, not Patrick, assures us that when he was checking apartments for people he saw our dogs, that they are OK. Do firemen tell white lies? We watch the smoke for three hours, then go to a nearby church where our displaced neighbors have gathered. I have walked by this church countless times since we moved to the neighborhood 11 years ago, but I have never been inside. There are old folks in bathrobes, babies in strollers, dogs without leashes, cats in carriers, a bird in a cage. It is very quiet.

The Red Cross arrives and we register as disaster victims. A Fire Marshall comes in to tell us the situation is under control; Sam goes back for the dogs. I follow a few minutes later and wait for a long time until Sam emerges with Pink and Joan on leash, greasy and stinky but alarmingly perky. Sam has tears on his cheeks. He explains that it took so long because the fireman who took him up helped him find the cats. Lola and Betty didn’t make it, and Judy was nowhere to be seen.

The children are asleep when Sam and I get to the friends down the street who have offered to put us up. I spend the first of many nights on someone else’s couch. In the middle of the night I get up to blow my nose. The tissue is black.

* * *

Question: if you had five minutes to grab what is important to you from what used to be your home, what would you take? I took my wedding album and the files I had been reading for work. Sam, for reasons only he could explain, grabbed a container of deodorant. He was reaching into his closet when he leapt back as if he had been burned. There was an outraged “Meow,” and Judy, who was always the smartest kitty if not the sweetest, emerged from the pile of sweaters she had burrowed herself in. She barely smelled of smoke. As I carried her from the apartment, I stopped in the kitchen for a towel to wrap her in. The cheese sat on a warped wooden cutting board on the counter next to the stove, where the potatoes still sat in the pot. The kale was in a colander in the sink. The buttered white casserole was next to the cutting board. Everything was ready to go, except it was covered by a thick film of black smoke residue.

There you go, Mr. Fliegel – the turkey is out of the oven.