There is a point to this story I’m going to tell you, though it might not be readily apparent even to myself…
It’s about a day I spent last Summer with my mother and her boyfriend, who both came up from Florida. Being my mother, she had an extremely specific and unwavering list of things she wanted to see that day, a list she had painstakingly constructed since the year before.
First up was Katz’s Delicatessen, which was the location of a crucial scene in the movie When Sally Met Harry…
…and also where Ron Jeremy at some time apparently ate at:
The big tourist draw here was their pastrami, which my mother insisted I order for hours before we actually arrived. At the crucial moment, I instead ordered the lox and cream cheese on a bagel, which flipped my mom out.
“People come here from all over the world to eat meat,” she told me in annoyance. She pointed to the bagel on my plate. “That’s NOT meat!”
“It’s fish,” I responded. “That’s meat. That’s meat from the fish. The fish was slaughtered to make this meat on my bagel. Fish is meat.”
She offered me some of the pastrami from her overflowing steaming sandwich.
I turned it down.
“I’m good with this lox, mom: really.”
“You can get this lox ANYWHERE! How many times are you going to be at Katz’s?!”
“No, really…I’m good.”
Then my mom’s boyfriend (and by “boyfriend” I mean he’s 72) said in a gentle, soft southern accent.
“Valerie, your momma really wants you to just eat a little of that pastrami. She’s been planning this for six months.”
“SIX MONTHS!” my mother said in emphasis.
“But I don’t really want…”
But by now my mom was heaping a lump of the pastrami directly on top of my bagel.
And it was such a small thing, but looking at that greasy stack of thinly-cut dark red spotted meat on top of my perfect beige toasted bagel felt like, at that precise moment, the ultimate violation.
“Here: just try it. It will melt in your mouth.”
“I really can’t…”
“Please eat the pastrami for your momma,” her boyfriend softly drawled. “She’s been waiting so long to take you here for this pastrami and it will really make her happy.”
My mom suddenly tapped her dish with her fork with this firm “ding,” looking at me.
And so I relented and ate the pastrami.
Which wasn’t terrible; it’s just not my favorite food. It’s not the first thing I personally would go for. But it was fine.
“You see,” my mom asked me, her eyes lit in anticipation as I chewed, “It melts right in your mouth, does it not?”
“That it does. Breaks right apart.”
“That’s how you know it’s good. That’s why people come to Katz’s from all over the world!”
Before we left, my mom wanted her boyfriend to take a picture of us under this sign:
Next on our list was the Staten Island Ferry. We climbed on the boat but it was pretty crowded when we got to the deck. The best I could do was take pictures of other people taking pictures of the Statue of Liberty.
And as I stood there, feeling the bulk of the ship rolling subtly under my feet, I wondered how I got here; wearing this green dress—my only dress—that I thought would somehow impress my mother. This light green dress that I realized looked just like the one Tippi Hedren wore in The Birds.
She started to “grill” me on various aspects of my life currently, and as she did so I kept looking back at the emergency exit:
Trying to list my recent accomplishments, I mentioned that I was on a radio show a couple of days ago about the occult and the paranormal. This did not garner the accolades from her that I had hoped. She inquired if I ever thought about becoming a “hand model,” because I had such great hands (with great skin: no pores!).
But really: how did I get here? What were all the myriad coincidences in my life—and that of my mother’s life, and her mother before her back in Brazil—that led to this exact moment?
Robert Anton Wilson once suggested (not to me personally) a spiritual exercise suggested (probably not to him personally) by Aleister Crowley (who borrowed it from a Buddhist monk in Ceylon): you sit down and just “free write” all the circumstances that led to this exact moment. And it could go as far back as when your ancestors decided to migrate, or back to when the stars were formed, or whenever.
I still can’t figure out the point of this story. Let’s go on a little bit further.
So the ferry arrived at Staten Island, and it must have been like 2 minutes before my mom and her boyfriend just nodded and turned to each other and said basically, “well, let’s get the fuck out of Staten Island and jump on the next ferry.” You know: let’s not even place our feet on Staten Island proper, but just run as fast as we fucking can onto that next boat that’s about to leave and go back to Manhattan.
And so we did.
We then spent the next two hours searching for an obscure bar that my mom wanted to visit, lost in lower Manhattan as if we were in Burkittsville and this was The Blair Witch Project. And at the end of the day we found ourselves just in some random Italian restaurant in Times Square. We were exhausted (well, my mother wasn’t exhausted, which she continually pointed out; she apparently having made some sort of Dorian Gray-type pact with the Devil back in the 1990s).
As I sat there in the restaurant I noticed a plaque on the brick wall saying that this was the former location of an old improvisational theatre where pretty much all these key comedians got their start. And it listed the comedians, and it was like George Carlin, Robin Williams, Richard Belzer, Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal, all these people. And they all performed in front of that wall I was eating next to.
And I just couldn’t get my eyes off this plaque. I just sort of wanted to literally “wrap” myself in the plaque and just disappear from everything. I just wanted to disappear into that wall, between the spaces between the bricks; into whenever that time was when this was not some cheesy Italian restaurant but that place.
I loved my mom, and still do. I knew she wanted the best for me. But my life at that point was so weird; so interesting and so strange and unsettled and uncertain, like I was living on that ferry 24/7, never landing in either Manhattan or Staten Island.
When we were on the ferry, my mom’s boyfriend wondered what would happen if we simply decided to stay on the ferry when it docked. Everybody else would be ushered out, but we would refuse to leave. I suggested that they would probably drag us off the boat. He asked: “what if we all just hid?” Basically, we would just hide on the boat until it was ready to make that return trip to Manhattan.
But that boat wasn’t making a return trip to Manhattan. The captain clearly said over the speakers: that particular boat was docking in Staten Island and was not returning.
And it might never return to New York City. It might stay in Staten Island forever. And if we hid on the boat, and just stayed in that boat waiting to go back—you know, we’d be in Staten Island forever. We’d be waiting forever. And they clearly did not want to stay literally 5 minutes in Staten Island, so this plan would have been a complete disaster.
I wouldn’t mind it personally just for myself, though. Just hiding on the ferry, waiting for it to dock where the decommissioned boats are just docked forever, and just climbing out and staying there for a while. I’d have an excuse. You know: just for a while, taking Charon’s coin, forgetting everything.
Just walking around, taking snapshots with my phone so I could piece it all together later.