Walking The Walk
By Joseph Longo
My bronze baby shoes had been on my desk for years, collecting dust. One day, I shoved them in a box with other tired tchotchkes. Recently, looking for something else, they jumped out at me. Some of the bronze had turned green and had begun to flake. But the shoes looked remarkably alive, as if a child could still step into them and walk.
My mother had a video of me in those shoes taking my first steps. My father was in it: handsome, strong and young. I was toddling towards his outstretched arms, looking eager and excited. I cried out when I reached him and he enveloped me in his strong, safe arms.
My father and I rarely talked. There were reasons: One, he was a Sicilian immigrant who never really mastered the language. Secondly, he was taciturn, not a man of many words. He was physical and loved doing things with his body and hands. He did fifty pushups every morning.
We may not have talked much but we loved to walk together. He had a passion for it, could walk for miles, non-stop. He instilled that passion in me at an early age. As an infant, he carried me on his back as he walked to wherever the winds took him.
One of my earliest walks with him was on the beach. He worshipped the sun, the sand and the sparkling ocean. The first thing he did when he got there was removed his shirt, revealing his movie-star chest and arms. This caught the desirous eyes of the sun-bathing ladies and the envy of their soft, overweight men. He walked shoeless digging his feet into the warm welcoming sand, always looking down, searching.
“There’s treasures in the sand, Sonny,” he would say to me. “Look for them.”
Over the years he found hundreds of dollars in coins and bills, watches, bracelets, and endless keys. He once even found a love letter which he kept folded in a closet in his bedroom for years. He never showed it to me. He called his booty treasures, and he’d bring them home to my mother. She was disdainful of the loot, and reprimanded him for bringing the junk into her clean home. However, whenever he returned from the beach he would show her what he found and she would repeat the reprimand. It was a ritual with them.
My father worked in Manhattan on construction sites in the Wall Street area, and he’d take me to visit these sites on weekends. These were special occasions. He would show me the site and point out what part of the building he worked on. It was always high up, scary, and it made me fearful for him. I often had dreams of him falling and me trying to catch him. After he showed me the site, we would begin our trek – this was my favorite part – and we always had one destination: the Palace, his favorite spot in Manhattan.
I lovingly remember these treks. We started in the Wall Street area and since it was always on the weekend, the streets were deserted. We had the narrow maze of winding streets, the canyons, formed by the towering skyscrapers, to ourselves, hearing only our footfalls echoing as we walked. It was our ghost town in a heart of the throbbing metropolis. The emptiness reminded me of cities in the movies where everyone had been killed off by a nuclear attack. As we walked, his hard, calloused hand tightly held my small hand, and he would point our landmarks: the stock exchange with its row of Corinthian Columns, Trinity Church where Alexander Hamilton was buried, the Customs House, and Battery Green Park. He was my private guide, and was very much in love and in awe with his adopted city.
Once we left the Wall Street area, the streets grew crowded. Streams of people surged past us. A hodgepodge of types and colors, speaking odd-sounding languages, hurrying, some wearing exotic garb, some dolled up in their Sunday best, many women were cocooned in furs and clutched shopping bags with names and pictures on them, men carried leather briefcases and wore suits and ties. These creatures were not like the folks in my Bronx neighborhood, where the men only wore suits to church, or for weddings and funerals. And the only fur I saw was on the cats that sniffed around garbage cans. These aliens opened a new and intimidating world for me. But daddy strode among them confidently. He was one of them; he belonged to the streaming masses that surged above the concrete streets.
“Daddy, you’re walking too fast,” I would say.
And he would pick me up and hold me in his arms and quicken his pace even more. He would often hold me aloft above the crowd as we walked.
“You flying,” he would say. “You flying, Sonny.”
I remember the exhilaration I felt as I soared about the streaming crowds. It took my breath away.
We’d walked down Lower Broadway and he would stop to get us hot dogs from a street vendor. He always wanted extra sauerkraut and mustard. Then we would continue to walk, eating our hot dogs. This seemed sinful to me, eating and walking. At home, my mother always insisted that we eat properly seated at the table so we could digest our food. And here we were, daddy and I, walking down the street eating, loving every joyous mouthful.
We walked to 34th Street, and he would point out Macy’s and tell me that the Thanksgiving Day Parade we watched on TV took place there. We looked in the windows, and I would marvel open mouthed at the magical displays.
We walked to 42nd Street and Times Square. It was 42nd street before it became a cesspool of pornography and vice. The movie theaters that lined the street did not show X-rated fare, but double bills of movies that had been out a while. Though I must admit the area did have a bit of sleaze even back then. We never lingered there long, but daddy had to make one stop to buy a knish in the cavernous Nathan’s Delicatessen. Since he had emigrated from Sicily, he had developed a taste for knishes. He called them good Jewish food.
We then walked down Sixth Avenue, or the Avenue of the America, which led us to the Palace, which is what daddy called Radio City Music Hall, the Eldorado of our trek uptown. It was a renewed thrill to see the twin lights proclaiming the palace come into view. Then the marquee was visible with the magical names of movie stars and movie titles emblazoned on it: invitations to enter still another magical world.
Inside, we crossed the grand art deco lobby with its painted murals and sculptures.
“This is a real palace,” daddy would say. “Don’t you think so, Sonny? This palace makes you feel like a king.”
Then we would sink into the soft velvet seats, and I would marvel at the great stage that resembled a setting sun. I took a deep breath, happy to rest my weary legs and feet. Soon I got lost in the movie and the stage show. For daddy, the highlight was the leggy Rockettes, doing their line of incomparable kicks. They mesmerized him. After the entertainment, we would take the subway home – back to our mostly uneventful life in the Bronx.
Over the decades, I have continued to be a compulsive walker like my father. I strode though many cites: San Francisco, LA, Seattle, Portland, Oregon, London, Paris, Rome, Florence, and many more. But none of those perambulations had the magic and wonder of the walks I took with my father though my boyhood streets of Manhattan.
The last walk I took with him was about a year before he died. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and couldn’t be allowed to walk by himself. So he was housebound, and I knew that that was killing him as much as the disease that was eating his brain and body. My mother had to keep a constant watch on him so that he would not walk off on his own.
One day she phoned me.
“Daddy’s missing,” she said with a catch in her voice. “He went walking by himself.”
I quickly drove to my parents’ apartment, my mother, looking distraught, standing at the door with her arms tightly folded, told me that he had been gone for about an hour. I circumnavigate the neighborhood – driving down streets that he used to walk before the disease made him a prisoner. I finally saw him slowly moving down a quiet residential street, frail and delicate, barely a shadow of his former self. I drove up alongside of him.
“Dad, I said. Get in the car. I’ll drive you home.”
He stared at me blankly through thick glasses, looking confused, not comprehending who I was. Then the light of recognition slowly ignited his face.
“Sonny,” he said, smiling. “Where you come from?”
“Get in, Dad.”
“No, no. Come. Walk. Walk with me, Sonny. Remember we used to walk.”
I parked my car, and sidled up to him. His pace was slow, halting, almost a shuffle. His hand searched for mine, found it, and held it tightly. It was boney and cold. We walked like that, hand and hand, just as we had done when I was a kid. But who was the kid now?
“Remember, when you was young and we walked in the city,” he said, looking up at me. His eyes glistened; he seemed to be fighting tears.
“Of course I do.”
“Remember I held you up and said you was flying.”
I smiled a bittersweet smile.
“Remember Radio City Music Hall and the girls with the legs. Those were good times. Weren’t they, Sonny?”
“The best times, dad.”
We walked like that, hand and hand, through the neighborhood streets, with him clinging to shards of memory that were quickly being erased from his mind.
Joseph Longo Bio:
I was born in New York City in the borough of the Bronx. When I reached 18 I travelled extensively through the United States and Europe. When I stopped travelling, I worked in the film industry for a number of years, and then in my late twenties, I tired of the freelance film industry lifestyle, settled in Boston and went to college. I received a BA in English and Education. Then I received an MA in mass communications.
As a graduate student I started to teach English on the college level, and after graduating I continued to teach but also returned to the film industry, where I worked mainly as a scriptwriter for training and educational media: films, video, slide shows, DVDs and audio presentations. I currently live in LA with my partner of 16 years and our three cats. I continue to maintain two careers, writing and teaching, and currently teach on-line English courses for Santa Monica College. My partner and I love to travel, and we are avid hikers.
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