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Staircases

The house in Flatbush where I grew up and lived for my first eighteen years had five staircases.

The most important main staircase led (I suppose leads) from the  entry room to the second floor.  There were three stairs that led to a landing before this staircase turned.  As a teenager I would run down the stairs make a turn on this landing holding onto one of the decorative wooden dowels that came down the bannister and take the three stairs all at once.  This caused me to break one of the dowels and it remained unfixed for twenty-five years; it remains broken.  When my father was unwell but still well enough to sleep upstairs and eat downstairs an elevator chair was installed for the straight length of staircase.

The back staircase led from the kitchen to a small landing next to the attic door.  This stair also had two turns in it — two steps from the kitchen door leading to the bottom step and one step to the landing.  It had I believe no bannister and was steeper than the front stairs.  I navigated this star by slithering in my pyjamas, belly-down, relying on the friction between my skin and the polyester to keep from tumbling down and breaking my head. At the landing at the top was a small stained glass window and the eight prism-shaped pieces of glass left thumb-sized, feathery rainbows on the carpet.

A terrifying rickety set of stairs led to the terrifying unfinished basement from the kitchen.  There was also a pair of cellar doors for delivering coal that led to a tiny dusty staircase with a swollen-shut door.  The tiny staircase between the cellar doors and the basement was one of the best hiding spots for hide and seek, although it was dusty and eerie, and forgotten.  No question that you could commit crimes in that space, if you wanted to, or escape punishment if you happened to be innocent.  Later somebody put a lock on the cellar doors; I don’t know who or why.  It would have to have been my mother now that I think of it.

The final staircase led from the landing with the feathery rainbows up to the attic.  There were two landings on it and when I was young and very very scared I could make it to the first one before bolting in fear.  As I got a little braver I made it to the second one, and then finally the third where I could ultimately make it to the storage room.  The storage room in Victorian times had been a children’s nursery and along the wall near the ceiling was peeling wallpaper that showed children at play from that era — solemn boys in skirts pushing hoops.  One wall of this room, which had a steamtrunk, the kind you would take with you on a journey by steam ship, was entirely taken up by an enormous three-bladed fan.  This fan was the heart and lungs of the house.  When you turned it on doors would shut like guns going off.

When taking final inventory of the house’s contents with my brother I had very little time and had to be ruthless.  A book of Gramsci’s philosophy that I had acquired in my early 20s from the Marxist uncle of a friend down the road?  Chuck!  An ornamental sword from a trip to Spain?  Chuck!  Who wants to deal with the headache of mailing a sword?  We were sweaty and dusty and avoiding, or addressing in our own way, the grief of  Mom’s recent death and Dad’s, and the loss of the house, and we came to the question of a bench.

I was sure this bench was not just a bench but a storage unit that had been stuck closed for decades.  My brother wanted to forget about it and said there was nothing in it.  Opening it would require moving three hundred books as well as piles of weird time-flotsam; flags, curtains, curtain rods, dishes maybe.  It was two o’clock in the morning; even the Brooklyn mosquitos had gone to sleep.

We’re opening it! I said defiantly and picked up the books and the curtains and threw them down.  I opened the bench and inside found a plastic bag. Inside that were my companions as a child and a toddler, back when I had left the house, urinated in my mothers porch plants, and run down the street ringing every doorbell, until I had been finked out and mocked by Mady Greenbaum.

To an animal, the animals were horrible.  Their fake fur had once been filthy and had been washed once and now didn’t resemble fur.  Their eyes had been fuzzy stickers and many had lost one or both.  I grabbed a monkey with wire arms and legs.  This monkey had been the star of a five second time lapse movie I did in my senior year of high school. The fur didn’t resemble fur but was only mildly creepy to the touch.

Keep this, I said to my brother.  I must have this.  Send this to me.  From this general catastrophe I had found an orphan.  Save him, I said.   I was proud that I had demanded the extra time from my brother, and proud that I knew the attic room well enough to know there was an additional concealed space, hiding memories, treasure, and potential victims, waiting in darkness for my rescue.

I felt loyal.

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