Being on the Upper West Side is strange because I’ve been so many slivers of self up here and they lurk around every corner baring the prickliest nostalgia. Whether it’s eight-year-old me selling junk from a tray on the sidewalk (the city kid’s spin on lemonade) or fifteen-year-old me rifling through flea market finds with a friend (the now-suburban kid’s reprieve), littler me abounds. Her, or the slightly older version, in my earlier early-twenties, literally starving in the summer heat, trying to make amends with my body. There I am in Gary Null’s sipping a green juice—a poor excuse for a snack—as I explain to old friends “what has happened.”
But more than me, it’s my Dad, whose presence seems embedded in every block in and around the 70s and 80s. I see him endlessly illegally parked, forcing my rumbling belly to wait for a table at Barney Greengrass (when he knows The Popover Café would do), or inexplicably building a tree house in our tiniest of brownstone backyards. I see him storming Starbucks before Starbucks was STARBUCKS, asserting his complex order in a caffeinated language I don’t yet understand. Or I see him in his pre-brownstone apartment (across the street from Mom’s) slipping Annie Lennox horizontally into that fancy, royal blue Bose—a small assertion of the new money he had made for himself.
I fall asleep and dream that he hasn’t died, he’s just been paralyzed, so he can’t speak to me but he’s always there. I wake up flustered and sweaty, the only Schiffer who sees him in dreams, and still unsure if this is a blessing or curse. The morning is spent outside with all of that curdling in my throat, tempted to tears at the sound of “Good Shabbos” on West End Avenue or the sight of a shuttered toy store we (Dad, Zach and I) used to swing by. Every Hebrew letter (and there are many) feels a bit of a torment—a reminder not just of the bad Jew I am but also the good Jew he so badly wanted to be.
At night I escape to dinner with my family downtown, but not really, since he’s still in the shadows on all of their faces. We glaze over his death like a casual fact now—a burden to bear with laughter and a little denial. But the past tense of him still feels weird in my mouth, like I’m playing a role that I’m not quite cut out for. I hide it under other anxieties, those more pressing: what I’m eating, the pimple on my chin or who my current self would most like to marry. I sweep him under that self-made rug, keeping him close but just covered enough to go on.