It’s Not Like It Was

My Grandpa Sam is 85 years old. He and my Grandma Ruth were married 59 years last Friday. I was already late to meet them for dinner tonight when I found out the J train would be terminating at Essex Street, instead of taking me to Canal where I could catch the 4/5 to the Upper East Side, where Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Sam now live in a high-rise condominium they bought in the eighties with the spoils of their thirty-odd years of paying low rents in co-op housing in Astoria, Queens. The condominium has an amazing view of New York, and on clear nights, New Jersey, though this view is gradually intruded upon by other condominiums that have since been built. Tonight, there were swarms of helicopters buzzing around the Hudson River.

Stuck downtown, I decided my quickest route uptown was a sprint through the Lower East Side. As I ran up Essex street, over on Rivington, up Orchard, and over on Stanton, losing count of the boutiques and pseudo-old-New York restaurants and the pseudo-old-Paris restaurants, the cafe/art galleries and the bar/art galleries and noticing that there is now a store called “Fuck Yoga” where they sell yoga mats that say “Fuck Yoga,” I realized that this was the very neighborhood both of my grandparents had lived in when they were very young. My grandmother was born at 442 East Houston Street and my grandfather lived on the Lower East Side when he first came to this country. I was about to traverse their entire net migration in America in a dozen stops on the 6 train.

When I arrived at the condominium, I found Grandma and Grandpa, as usual, knee-deep in a week’s worth of The New York Times, which they read religiously and voraciously. Luckily they were not unconscious with hunger, as they had had a “late lunch.” My grandfather, as usual, was wearing several layers of sweaters and my grandmother was dressed for an evening of al fresco dining at Club Med. The vast difference in their experience of temperature is just one of the many mysteries of their 59-year marriage.

“Emily,” said my grandfather gravely, “I have something to tell you.”

“Sammy!” my grandmother interrupted, “Emily’s here. She’s hungry. She wants to eat. You can tell her at the restaurant. Unless she wants to eat in. Do you want to eat out or do you want to eat in?”

“Hold on a minute, Grandma,” I said. “Grandpa just started to tell me something.”

“I never get to finish a sentence in this house,” he said. “I haven’t finished a sentence in fifty-nine years.”

“I’m listening, Grandpa,” I said.

“When I was nine years old, Emily, Al Smith was running against Herbert Hoover in the 1928 election. The papers were so full of Al Smith. Al Smith was a man of the people. I read so much about Al Smith everywhere, I thought, ‘Al Smith is going to win.’ But he lost. I was shocked. I was so sad. How could Al Smith lose? To Herbert Hoover? It was terrible. So that was the first time I was on the side of the losers in an election, and I’ve been on the wrong side of most elections ever since.”

I told my grandfather how I had a similar experience of the 1984 election. I was five and had been very taken with the 1984 Olympics, specifically Mary Lou Retton’s gymnastics triumph. I was into the idea that things could be won and won by the right people. The Olympics of ’84 segued nicely into the election of ’84, in which I learned that Mondale was the good guy and Reagan, as I feel I always knew, perhaps even in utero, when he was only governor of California, was an ASSHOLE. When Mondale lost, I was heartbroken. I didn’t know that the right guy could lose.

We agreed that these defeats (Al Smith ’28, Walter Mondale ’84) were difficult, but despite the perspective they gave us on the pendulum of American politics, this one seemed to be the worst yet. We all went out for paella.

I walked my grandparents back to their apartment. I like to walk with one grandparent on each arm. The restaurant we went to was only a block away from the condominium. My grandmother has powerful, multiply-jointed hands with which she usually grasps a person, any person, even small children, a few inches above the elbow in a suprisingly immbolizing grip. But tonight she was holding my hand, and I remembered how soft her hands are. My grandfather, who can do all kinds of old-fashioned things like dance and wear hats, links arms in that old-fashioned way that you feel came naturally in the 1930s.

“Sammy!” said my grandmother. “Come stand on my other side.”

“Oh, Christ,” said my grandfather. “You’re not going to faint, are you, Ru?”

My grandmother has low blood pressure and has been prone to fainting all her life. Also, I’d been told she should not drink alcohol and had forgotten this when she split a Dos Equis with my grandfather over the paella. Not that she would have listened to me if I had said someting. She was paused and looking a little woozy on 89th Street between 2nd and 3rd.

“So what if I do faint. You’ll just carry me upstairs is what you’ll do.”

“Try and faint on a rug,” he said. “So I can just slide you into the elevator.”

We all laughed at his joke. I watched my grandparents laughing and thought, as I often think, that if you live with one person for fifty-nine years and don’t want to kill them, it’s a blessing, and if they still make you laugh, it’s a miracle. My grandmother took a deep breath and kept walking up the block. We arrived at the condominium and said goodbye. My grandmother expressed her usual concern about the kind of “characters” that might be on the downtown 6 train at 9 p.m. I told her that there were very scary characters on the downtown 6 train, many of them the yuppies of the Upper East Side. “The subway is very safe now,” my grandfather assured her. “It’s not like it was.”

All the way home, I wondered about politics, about love, about the subway, about New York, is it not like it was, or is it just like it was?

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