Hey Stranger…

This past weekend I took a road trip to Philadelphia with a friend from work. This trip had a dual purpose: 1) eat tasty vegetarian sandwiches from a restaurant that opened up since I left the city (discovered and enthusiastically recommended by said friend); and 2) drive by my childhood home just because.

We lucked out because, in spite of consecutive weeks of miserable weather consisting of rain, sleet, and snow, we planned our trip for the first weekend the sun and warmer temperatures had emerged since the beginning of winter. Almost 60 degrees and sunny – certainly an occasion calling for rolled down windows and good moods. So we excitedly hit the road in my VW, driving nonstop from Brooklyn to Govinda‘s (the tasty veggie spot) at S. Broad & South – btw, check it out if you’re in the area.

I was born and raised in Philadelphia. And although I lived in a couple of apartments in different Philly neighborhoods as an adult during the law school years (including the one year of semi-unemployment following law school), I lived in the same house with my parents from the time I was a baby until I went to college. Same house, same neighbors, same park, same mailman (well, maybe not the mailman). In a sense, the stability of my childhood can be viewed in stark contrast to the adult life I’ve carved out for myself, which is somewhat less stable. But since I left Philadelphia in 2004, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been back. My mother was the only family member I still had ties with in the city. And when she moved and sold the house in 2006, there really wasn’t a reason to be there. Fast forwarding to last weekend, I was looking forward to taking a quick drive down memory lane – and dragging a friend along for the ride.

So after stuffing our faces with veggie chicken cheese steak sandwiches and buying more sandwiches to eat later (seriously, check out this place if you’re in the area), we drove out to Southwest Philadelphia for the memory lane drive-by. I used to drive that route on a regular basis, visiting my parents when I lived no more than 20 minutes away. But I haven’t made the drive since 2004.  In spite of the 6 years of distance, it felt like no time had passed as I made right turns and left turns, straddled the trolley tracks, and avoided the potholes.  As we approached my block, I said to my friend, “wouldn’t it be funny if we ran into someone I knew from back in the day?”  It all felt so familiar, it wasn’t such an unreasonable expectation.

So he said, “hey stranger.”  We hadn’t been pulled up in front of my house for more than 30 seconds before the two men standing across the street, attending to a disabled car, were bridging the gaps between present and past.  Peter and Gordon both remembered me.  I only remembered Gordon.  And strangely, I also remembered Peter’s dog, Sheba. Regardless of my failing memory, Peter is the one who acted like we were friends at one point (we weren’t), noting how long my hair had gotten since I first started growing it (1995) and asking about my older sister’s well-being.  Oh, and I remembered that Gordon and I used to ride the school bus together.

After learning that a new, quiet family has moved into my old home (described by Peter as being either Haitian or Jamaican…I bet they’re West African), chit chatting a bit about vague updates, and sharing a few anecdotes about my childhood with my friend, that was it.

The experience was strange in a way. So little had changed, with the exception of Gordon’s voice, of course. And running into two people who knew me as a child, and feeling so familiar with my surroundings, made me feel a sense of home and belonging. I didn’t realize I had that at all, much less in a city where I no longer have any ties. But I actually do!  And there I was, proving it to a real life witness.  Felt pretty good.

We drove back to Brooklyn with full bellies and happy moods. I enjoyed my second sandwich the next day.

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Never More than a Shark

I took swimming lessons every year as a child. My mom was quite serious when it came to our extracurriculars, particularly swimming and dance. Each year my sister and I took our respective classes (she was always older and far more advanced than I in everything), progressing to different levels as we mastered the lessons from the year before.

Swimming lessons were at the YMCA indoor pool. They had the typical levels: Tadpole, Minnow, Fish, Flying Fish etc. The highest level was Porpoise. Before you could be a Porpoise, you not only had to master all of the strokes, including freestyle, breast, and butterfly. But as a Fish, you also had to pass the water survival test, which I only remember as treading water for what felt like hours (it was probably only ten minutes of treading water and involving many more activities). And most importantly, as a Shark, you had to pass a test of endurance.

Shark was the level preceding porpoise. I was a Shark for two years. And I never became a Porpoise. And to this day, I resent the failure and maintain the weakness. As if it is a reflex, when I’m asked how far I can walk or run, I say “I don’t have any endurance.” Even though it’s been years and years.

After being promoted from Fish, the status of Shark was a pretty big deal. At least I felt like a big deal, in the upper ranks, hanging with the pros (of the Lansdowne YMCA). Each class we would swim laps and laps the length of the pool, changing strokes every 2 or 3 laps. I usually would allow my head to get the best of me on the very first one, worrying about conserving energy to last me the whole class. Lap one: “okay, that wasn’t too bad. I can do 9 more. one at a time.” Lap 4: “there’s no way I can take much more of this. just go slower and take one lap at a time.” I would reach the wall between laps and not want to let go. Taking off each time into the incredibly long distance of the pool I was weaker and weaker, and embarrassingly slow. Without the wall or anything else to hold me up, I was forced to rely on wobbly limbs, a racing heart, and a self-doubting mind. And trust me, you wouldn’t want to be lost at sea with those qualities. By the time I was setting out for my last lap, I’m sure most of the students were finished and moving on to other tasks. I, on the other hand, typically required a teacher’s assistance on the way back the final time, gasping for air, abandoning all stroke technique, and sometimes crying (and yes, I’m slightly ashamed to admit all of this). I remember vividly how far away that wall would seem. Almost unreachable, as if I was actually moving backwards. Each time I finished the laps, I felt physically weak and a bit more traumatized than I was in the previous swim class.

This scene played out many times. The more times I failed, the more I knew I couldn’t do it. After I was unable to pass out of shark the second time, I asked my mom just to allow me not to be a porpoise. Our conversation probably went something like, “Mom, could you love me even if I’m never more than a shark?” She accepted me as I was: her no-endurance-having child.

Fast forward to the present day. I’m beginning to think this issue with endurance has been rearing its ugly head in more creative ways in my adult life (probably because I tend to avoid activities requiring physical endurance). As I was walking to work this morning, I was feeling really slow and weighed down. I was conscious of every step I took, as each one felt like a chore. I didn’t want to go to work today. But that isn’t the real issue. The issue is that my eventual last day of work should be close, maybe six months from now (if all goes according to plan). And now that I have a sense of how many more laps I have to do, I have begun to shut down and feel incapable of making it through these final laps/days/months. And sadly, this has happened before. A great job turns to mush and I revert to counting down to when it will be over – no longer enjoying the experience or practicing my strokes, instead reverting back to mere survival, self-doubt, and yeah, some tears too.

So I had a revelation today. Turns out I may be lacking both physical and professional endurance. Only in the professional world, I don’t have a teacher to help me make it back to that wall safely. I’m flailing out here on my own -and it is scary as hell!