Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sugar, Part 3

New York City rose glittering from the opposite bank of the Hudson River. It was a bonfire of buildings; flashes of unexpected greens, blues, white heat. The offices and high rises were jagged as flames, lifting and falling across the skyline. The city smoked and steamed, domed in a high orange haze that seemed to keep the night away. I rolled down the Buick's backseat window and smelled sulfur, jet fuel, fish and the exhaust of the bug splattered Greyhound bus that throttled across the George Washington Bridge ahead of us.

"Why is the traffic so bad?" I asked when we slowed to a crawl.

"It's Friday night. People are going into the city to party," my mother explained.

"Hold still and you can feel the bridge move under us," my stepfather said.

For a moment we were quiet. The Buick shifted slightly. It bobbed as the wind swayed the spans.

We passed under the high arches of two enormous towers; megaliths of steel lattice, linking swags of cable. We sped along the river bank on what I would come to learn was the West Side Highway. My stepfather swung the car down a side street and soon we were stuck in gridlock surrounded by a long linking chain of yellow cabs, honking and braking.

"Put on WBLS," my mother said.

My stepfather tuned the car's radio and soon they both sang along with Marvin Gaye in the front seat as I stretched as far as I could out of the back window to see the city surrounding me. We passed brightly lit Korean groceries with yellow awnings, where outside their front doors waxy green apples shined beside piles of glossy black cherries, citrus pyramids and bouquets of daisies dyed unnaturally blue. On one corner couples sat at marble topped tables, on wire chairs at an outdoor cafe, biting into napoleons, cream puffs and eclairs, the pastry shattering under their teeth into buttery crumbs on their plates. People were everywhere. All kinds of people. A man in a turban smoked a pipe under a streetlight as four giggling girls walked by, all of them dressed in black and fuchsia crinolines with wide lace bows wrapped around their heads. They looked like Madonna. Against buildings, kids not much older than me did "the worm" on flattened carboard boxes to music popping out of boom boxes. We ran red lights and several rights and lefts later my stepfather pointed out the trees of Central Park, then the statue in the center of Columbus Circle, which we went around three times before we found a parking space.

My mother held my hand and led me down a crowded sidewalk.

"Where are we going?"

"You'll see. Don't worry. You'll love it."

The line at Gelato San Martin wound out the open, glass front doors, melting into a puddle of people in front of the narrow, two story, Art Deco storefront. The building was pure white marble and chrome. Turquoise and hot pink neon piping lit up the arched, palladian windows through which I could see men, women and children digging plastic spoons into clear cups and big waffle cones of ice cream.

"We're getting ice cream?!"

"Gelato," my stepfather said.

"Gelato? What's gelato?"

"A special kind of ice cream fron Italy. It's better than ice cream. It's softer and creamier and tastes better."

"Really? What kinds of flavors?"

"All kinds. They have flavors you never even dreamed of. Wait 'til you get inside. You're never going to believe it."

And I didn't.

At the Dairy Queen they just had vanilla and chocolate. At my grandparents' house we'd get Butter Almond or the tri-color brick of Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry. Once in a while my grandfather'd get a wild hair and splurge on a half gallon of Mint Chip. I didn't even know that there were other ice cream flavors outside of those few, but at Gelato San Martin I discovered an entire universe of frozen sweetness.

The freezer case, manned by a team of at least twenty young Italian men scraping the gelato into cones and cups with metal paddles, stretched the entire length of the building and was divided into two distinct sections - one side for gelato and one side for sorbet. My mother explained to me that the gelato had milk and the sorbet did not.

First I explored the gelatos, all soft, cream-muted pastels flavored with various combinations of chocolates, nuts, coffee and liqueurs. I considered coffee for its naughty, adults-only feel. I wondered if my mother and stepfather would let me have it.

"If that's what you want, then of course," they said.

"You can have whatever you want," my mother added.

"Really? Are you sure?"



"Anything. Yes. It's just ice cream."

"And I can have anything I want?"

My stepfather laughed.

"You'll love this then. You can mix flavors. You don't have to just get one. If you want three kinds you can get three kinds in one cup."

I couldn't even speak. I had to inspect the sorbets and when I peered into the case I just wanted to stand there and look inside it all night long. The luminous tubs of iced fruits shimmered under the glass: sun colored mango, summer-green kiwi stippled with shiny black seeds, a saturated, sure-to-stain red raspberry swirled next to a mambo of pinky-orange guava. I couldn't choose. There was blueberry, a pale pink peach, spiced pear, sour apple, ruby grapefruit and snowy white lemon.

And I could have whatever I wanted.

Shyly, I requested a cup of kiwi and raspberry, chosen by color. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever tasted. The sorbet was tart and sweet, velvety. I loved the crunch of tiny kiwi seeds, the way the deep green and red fruit puree melted into a froth of little bubbles on the edge of my spoon.

We ate our sorbet and gelato as we wandered the Upper West Side on that humid, June night. I tried to take it all in - the buildings with their uniformed doormen, the boutiques, Chinese take-outs, 24 hour cookie shops and gourmet grocery stores. I stared alternately into my cup and up at the skyscrapers.

"Can we come back and get this again sometime?" I asked.

"We can come whenever you want."


Devi said...

its amazing how you can make my heart light and heavy all at the same time. thank you for sharing your amazing gift, write on!

Wombat said...

You've sucked me in. Mamie of recommended your blog. I'm hooked.

MtnMama said...

It makes me sad that we often have to experience pain and deprivation in order to truly appreciate and drink in the beauty and loveliness that is out there.
So many times, when my daughter is enjoying something, I know that I am getting so much more out of it because I am both happy for her, and also sort of being nice to the little girl I was who is also there, going along for the ride.

DiaryofWhy said...

I can't believe you're just giving this stuff away for free! But I'm not complaining.

Jeannie said...

I never wanted to visit New York before.

Anonymous said...

Okay, this post made me cry. *sniff* *sniff* ... glad that your mom got you back.


Holly at Tropic of Mom said...

Cool, such descriptive writing. And you must have some kind of memory! A sweet memory.

Wide Lawns said...

Thanks you all.

Jeannie, New York isn't for everyone. That's ok. I have some great memories of living there but also some crappy ones. There's amazing food there though.

Mtn - I feel the exact same way. I know if I have kids I will do the same thing.

Diary - I don't have a choice in that matter. Maybe one day I'll get discovered.

Holly - I have a scary elephant kind of memory. But this was a huge defining moment in my life. I don't really remember the day after this.

LegalMist said...

Beautifully written. And I'm so happy for the little girl you were. Finally, some well-deserved happiness! :)

Melanie said...

If anything, your writing just keeps getting better and better. Dang, you're talented!

Oh, and thanks to you, I have to go eat a frozen treat now......

the new girl said...

What a great story...

Kelly Hudgins said...

Please do put all this together in a book so I can buy it!

Donna said...

I totally love little WL's Mom and Dad.

Architect Critic said...

*sniff* Wow, that brought a tear to my eye. Very poetic prose. Your voice really comes out in this, and I can definitely feel that this event had a profound impact on your life and your relationship with your parents. Brilliant.

Laurie said...

I just want to give you the biggest hug. Thank God your Mom got you back and things got better. You all deserve as much happiness as possible. (Especially you!) Thanks so much for sharing your memories and your amazing talent with us. :)

faded said...

I have been away from blog reading for a while so I have not seen your blog in quite some time. The quality of your writing and story telling has always been very good, but it is fantastic now.

kate2.0 said...

A pure delight to read. Thank you for such wonderful stories!

Pat said...

A beautiful sight for a dessert deprived little girl must have been the perfect gelatto counter, with options galore.

New York is a study in extremes. Having grown up there, I had an experience unusual to those from elsewhere.

I cannot imagine NOT wanting to visit New York. For Art, for History, for Food, for Theater, for Fashion, for Whatever, NY has a trip for you.

You MUST put it on your list of one of the places to see!

foxymoron said...

I love your writing more and more all the time. As another poster so eloquently stated, I can't believe you're giving this away! I'd pay, in a heartbeat.

Joy said...

Ahhh. I love. This was just sweet. Made me choked up and sniffly in a happy sort of way.

Green said...


Albany Jane said...

mmm, I think I can taste the kiwi, WL!

Jean_Phx said...

That made me cry. Have you been working on a book? I imagine you have plenty of time for that '-)

JoeinVegas said...

It's nice to have points like that to remember, nicer when they are happy points.

Anonymous said...

Somewhere, out there..

is a book publisher that is looking for you.



Anonymous said...

I've been reading back through your archives, and every time you mentioned your life with your father and stepmother, I'd think "please, let her escape have been wonderful" and it seems it was. Gelato in New York. Gelato for a girl who'd been denied sweets and anything good for so long. Wonderful. Yes.

Kali said...

I love the image of New York as a "bonfire of buildings". Lovely.

Anonymous said...

I love reading your blog. Coming from a rather dysfunctional home, I can feel that little girl's awe and joy eating that gelatto.

Well done.

Jimmy said...

I think I've read Violent Acres too much because while I've loved this series, I keep expecting the next installment to begin, That's when everything went horribly, horribly wrong.

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