The reflection of what I did in June of 1948 frightens me today, as it should have back then. It started when, out of the blue, my father said, “Tomorrow, when I come home from work, I’m going to bring you a surprise.” It was such an uncommon statement coming from this British disciplinarian that I fantasized all night and most of the next day about what kind of surprise would accompany my father.
Around 4 o’clock the next day, I decided that, under the circumstances, it was inappropriate to sit around waiting for “it” to come to me; I would have to meet “it” half way. Perhaps it would be too large for Dad to carry alone. Like clockwork, Dad arrived every day at ten to six with meticulous precision, meaning that his train pulled into the elevated line station at 5:35. An inescapable impulse came over me to meet him on the station platform when the subway car doors opened. But the el (as we called the Culver Line subway when it came to our elevated Avenue N station) was unattended at that time of day making it impossible to slither through the turnstile under the cloak of innocence. A ten-year-old, caught by the attendant sneaking through in those days, would be punished with merely a cluck of the tongue. I could handle that. However, with the station deserted and gated, that was not a choice.
Knowing that an unattended station was impenetrable, I lackadaisically stood at the bottom of the stairs that climbed two stories to the fortress-like turnstile that we called the Iron Lady and then up another story to the platform. Hanging on the outside edge of the steps, I thoughtlessly ascended step-by-step, hanging onto the outside of the banister railing, until I reached the first landing. An alert mind would have been terrified; I was ten feet above the sidewalk. I hung there for a bit and swung around the outside of the landing and slowly and aimlessly kept ascending like a monkey on a jungle-gym. Steel bars and a cyclone-type fence blocked access to the platform. I was 20 feet above ground and just hanging around. I noticed a 15-inch gap in the fencing to the side, about four feet away; there was no foothold below that point and a long way down. I knew that I was doing something dreadfully wrong, but somehow that made it right and pulled me farther. How else could I express my appreciation for Dad’s exciting generosity?
Clinging to the bars with my shoes barely penetrating through the fencing, I migrated slowly to the gap, crawled through finally plopping onto a steel beam. I had to slither through another gap amidst skuzzy left-over cables, souvenirs of pigeons and scattered metal debris invisible to public view. Every few minutes an arriving train shook the members that I clung to as I looked for any possible move forward. There was no possibility of going backwards; what flops safely in doesn’t always plop safely out. My childhood sense of invulnerability was quickly eroding as I examined the abandoned detritus and realized that no one would ever find me here. This could have been a lonely and horror-filled dead end, but luckily I noticed a stretch of cyclone fence that shook loosely with each passing train. I was able to slip through the loose flap in the fence to the stairs that ascended to the platform. I was streaked with an oily grime.
I waited on the platform for Dad to emerge with each arriving swarm that spewed from the train. The fourth train brought Dad and I rushed to meet him and see what surprise he brought with him. Knowing that I didn’t have the nickel to enter the platform legally, and realizing that I had climbed three stories to the platform, Dad looked red with fury. He grabbed me by the back of my dirty shirt and with a muted roaring anger, dragged me down the platform and down to the street. Meekly, I asked, “Did you bring something for me?” Without looking at me, he rumbled, “Forget about that,” and kept dragging me home. The worst punishment was that he had forgotten.
Thankfully, Dad never told Mom, which averted a week of Yiddish epithets preceded with the whimpering, “Oy,” followed by the usual predictions of how her life would fall apart. The next day, Dad came home and presented me with a small potted petunia, accompanied by a quiet, “Surprise.” I set it on the fire escape and tried to stop thinking about the potential catastrophe to which I exposed myself. But, when you are ten years old, youthful immortality trumps physical vulnerability. While I remember the incident with amazing detail, I cannot imagine having the courage to do what I did. But, on second thought, if the consequences were unimaginable, I guess it wasn’t courage at all.
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