A Kid From Queens

Last weekend, while my I led my brother up some climbs outside Sonora and he guided me down a river outside Yosemite, our parents met our aunt and uncle for dinner in the borough of Queens, where we are all from.

After dinner, my mother reported via email, they went by our old house in Flushing:

“We walked down 59th Ave and saw the house we lived in. It was the same. A white- haired man was standing in front watering the grass and the bushes. Dad approached him and asked him if his name was Angelo. He said yes. Dad said, “I’m Carl. We lived here when you first built the apartment upstairs.” Angelo said, “No, I don’t remember a Carl living here.”  Dad said, “Yes, we did, me and my wife, Ann, and our daughter, Emily.”  Angelo’s whole face lit up in the biggest smile. He said, ” “EMILY! of course!!”  and he leaned in and hugged Dad and me with the warmest hug and began to tell the stories of what you said Em, when you were 1 and 2 and 3, to him and Susie–all of them as I remember.”

Reading these words on the porch of the river guide house, where I sometimes sleep, uninvited, in the parking lot, I teared up. I was happy to be remembered, and to remember—a place long ago and far away.

142-29 59th Avenue Flushing

We lived in the old house until I was three and a half, just before my brother was born. Angelo and his wife, Susie, were our landlords. They lived downstairs and we lived upstairs.

Angelo and Susie didn’t have children of their own, but they had many nieces and nephews. Their niece, Lucy, babysat for me, and their nephew, Dino, played with me in the backyard, which in typical Queens fashion was paved over with concrete. Dino was in the first grade, and had a bowl cut. I was in awe of him. I sensed his world was bigger than mine, that he went places beyond the patch of concrete underneath the arbor where Susie and Angelo grew grapes for their wine.

Susie made her own pasta dough and she would give me chewy, salty mouthfuls. In preschool, I would surreptitiously eat the Play Dough, wondering why it didn’t taste as good.

Because I spent my earliest years in the bosom of an Italian family, my imaginary friend was named Anthony. Then as now, I was not good at fiction. I knew other kids had imaginary friends who had great adventures, but when someone asked me about Anthony, all I could say was, “He’s upstairs.” When I made up stories, they were modifications of M*A*S*H episodes, or the movie Flashdance.

Angelo remembered that when he asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “a construction worker!”

I am not a construction worker—far from it. In fact, I am a little afraid of power tools. What I really love to do is decorate. When I first started coming out west and going down rivers with my brother, my favorite part of the day was scrambling over the rocks, beer in hand, to find a sleeping spot, and decorating it by draping my sarong over a rock and finding another rock to use as a nightstand. One morning, on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, I reached for my glasses on my “nightstand” and found a sleeping rattlesnake coiled under my outstretched arm.

My grandmother loved to decorate, and my grandfather, whom I never met, was a woodworker. Their daughter, my aunt, is an architect—a builder and a decorator. When I sent her a picture of me following my mentors on a route in Yosemite,

on the lamb

she wrote back, “What’s a kid from Queens doing climbing rocks?”

The day Lauren and I bailed off the first pitch of West Crack and couldn’t even use the fire as an excuse because we were already bailing when the smoke started rolling in, we went, defeated, to Olmstead Point, to watch the flames lick at the ridge.

fireWe got to talking to an experienced old-timer and he had us get our cams out of the car and explained double-axle vs. single-axle technology. “Sometimes a little boldness is better than a placement,” he said almost absently, considering an X4. Then it came out that he was from—Queens! And he was—Jewish! Like me!

“I’ve never met another Jewish climber from Queens!” I marveled. “How did it go, like, with your mom?”

“How do you think?” laughed Eric Perlman. The next time I went to Tahoe, I noticed his name all over the guidebook, hardly a single route under 12a*, and most of them roofs.**

{*12a is hard **roofs are hard}

My mom said that Angelo said that another neighbor always used to ask me what I was going to be when I grew up. The neighbor asked me one too many times and I said, “I told you already! I said I was going to be a construction worker!”

What a little know-it-all! I miss knowing everything, like I did when I was three. Growing up feels like a process of finding out you know nothing, and then alternately fighting and making peace with the unknown. But even then, I didn’t know everything. I was wrong. I’m not a construction worker.

Just then, my smartphone dinged with a much more recent memory. The day before, at the crag, the guy on the next route had been messing with some fancy photo rigging. He took some pictures of me and had just emailed them.

construction worker

When they downloaded, I realized I am a construction worker after all.

I wear my hard hat. I use my tools.



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