The SMITH Diaries Project

He Got Skunked Down, But He Got Up Again (Finalé)

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

By Brad Wieners

“We can’t make it without stopping. We need to stop.”

“I know,” I replied.

M knows when I’m replying to acknowledge I’ve heard her, but I’m not really listening. So she followed up: “We need to stop before we get onto the bridge.”

This time I didn’t reply. I hadn’t made up my mind on that yet. I was driving like a bat out of Boston (where they drive scarier than Hell), and I was being stubborn and resisting M’s completely reasonable request to refuel and maybe find a way to keep the mystery license plate from falling off our car before heading out onto the span of the George Washington Bridge.

In fact, I was briefly beyond all reason, and, as if to prove it, I downshifted, then accelerated parallel with a tanker truck as the traffic on the expressway forked and threaded a sine wave through a construction zone, two tires on pavement, two on raked and fractured concrete, bits of gravel spitting up and against the inside of the fender as if we driving a vacuum over a filthy floor. Georgette, who been caring for Gus while M was working, gasped at the nearness of the tanker; Gus, in the car seat next to her, looked around baffled, but not unhappy; and my sister Megann starred out the window behind me. I couldn’t tell if she was beyond tears or not. M was clearly on the verge of fresh tears when I stole a look at her.

“Don’t take it out on the car,” she pleaded.

“I’m not,” I lied.

“We need to pull over and get gas,” she said, her jaw tightening. “Or I’m…Going. To. Lose. It.”

Moving days are always stressful, but in all my life, and in all the moves I can recall, some more vividly than others—Baltimore to Chicago, Chicago to Boston, Boston times-two before cross-country to Palo Alto, Palo Alto to Los Angeles (five addresses there, plus in with a college sweetheart (and back out) then up the coast to San Francisco (at least four apartments), S.F. to Santa Fe, New Mexico (while helping M move to Seattle, too) to New York City (three apartments in four-plus years)—in all of that, our moving day from Greenpoint to Nyack, not 20 miles as the crow flies, blows them all away.

In the hour previous to pulling even with the tanker on the BQE, my sister had become hysterical, tearfully explaining that she felt under-appreciated for all she’d done that morning, and in the weeks previous, to help us. The trigger for this outburst was our offer of a cheap tool set to our downstairs neighbor (a white elephant for our erstwhile super), but it soon came out she’d read an email I’d sent our mother giving my opinion that she hadn’t done enough to get herself situated in New York, and she was upset by it, as well as offended when M offered her $50 for her trouble that morning (though not so offended she returned the money)—all of which left M steamed in a I-really-don’t-need-this-shit
-right-now kind of way. Which was understandable.

This had all gone down an hour after the movers had taken off in an unmarked, stripped-down version of a medium-sized U-Haul truck. We were supposed to meet them and let them into our house, or pay for the time they waited on us, and so we felt pressed to get rolling and had hit the road without eating lunch.

To find budget movers, we’d done a reverse auction online, and the ones we selected, though inexpensive, were neither bonded nor insured, and this played on our nerves as well. (For one of the movers, Paco, it was his first day. He’d become exhausted even before the drive to Nyack, and so the others teased him by handing him sofa cushions and pillows to carry one at a time—welcome comedy for all of us.) Not so funny: that our belongings had not fit entirely in their truck, and no matter what happened, I’d have to return later that night for the last of it…maybe two trips, if I couldn’t fit the remains of the day in our Subaru. (Going back the following day was out the question. We were moving on March 15, a Wednesday, so I’d taken off work. I couldn’t swing two days off in a row with all I had going at the office.)

The night before, Tuesday, I’d taken the subway out to a part of Brooklyn I’d never been to, and alone, with $4,400 in crisp hundreds in the breast pocket of a sport jacket in order to purchase a 1999 Subaru Forester off the street for cash. I was the kind of fool who didn’t deserve sympathy if I got jacked, a mark in a Coen Brothers noir, but I’d promised M we’d have a car before we moved, and, as it happens, I made the deadline by two and a half hours.

The seller of Subaru, Brian, a contract dealer who worked out of his apartment, met me at the bottom of the stairs to an elevated subway stop. I’d met him in the dark a few nights before and test-driven the car, and I thought I’d sorted out why a car that had been sold to its original owner in New York had out-of-date, out-of-state plates with unpaid parking tickets on them. However, when M pressed me as to why I had to take the plates off the car before leaving it parked on the street overnight (that same evening), I wasn’t 100 percent sure it wasn’t because there was something less than legit about Brian’s employer. In any case, I hadn’t had much success getting the plates back on the morning of our move, either. The Florida plate could be heard rattling as we drove; it dangled from a single screw.

Now add the fact that M had left her day job the day before and not yet succeeded in communicating clearly to Georgette that we couldn’t keep her on as Gus’s caregiver after the move, and that we had camped out in our new home exactly one night but were now fully committed to our new life in a town where we knew a couple people to say hello to and no one well…and now the scenario for Most Stressful Moving Day Ever is almost complete.

But not quite. 72 hours earlier, before I bought the car, before the movers showed up, or Megann flipped, M’s brother Michael, her original life support in New York City, had very nearly died. When he’d checked into ER at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Manhattan that Sunday night, he learned his appendix had already burst. And apparently when your appendix bursts, they can’t just take it out, but instead have to drain your guts of the infection like medieval barbers. This was the state M left Michael in at the hospital as she packed boxes: stabilized on intense antibiotics and hallucinogenic levels of painkillers with tubes sticking out his abdomen.

So now the picture’s more or less complete: we’re late to meet the uninsured movers, my sister’s in the car, too, because we couldn’t leave things as raw as they’d been, M is feeling guilty, even heartsick, about her brother Michael in the hospital, as well as letting our nanny go, and so Georgette’s in the car, too, and out of all of us, only Gus has had lunch (thanks to Georgette), and the car we’re all in might be re-possessed or stolen, but in any event the license plate is falling off, and the fuel gauge is on empty. Hey, but at least the fuel light (which may or may not work) is not illuminated.

Maybe it was M’s tremulous voice or Georgette’s gasp, but soon after we drew even with the tanker truck, I had a chilling thought: this is how people end up dead. An asshole motorist (that’d be me) in a car he’s driven for less than an hour in his whole life, pushes too hard and challenges a 80-ton tanker on a curve…and…and I let my foot off the gas, gave the tanker some room, and soon pointed our over-wrought wagon up an exit ramp and into a service station.

As I pumped the gas, a livery limo driver walked up to me. His gestures were exaggerated because he didn’t speak English, and assumed I did. I didn’t make out what he said, but I nodded as if I understood him—counterproductive politeness. I soon worked out that he wanted to hand me something, and held out my hand. Into my hand fell a screw. For our license plate. He showed me how it was loose, in case I’d failed to notice. I remain quite confident he understood and was maybe even a little embarrassed by my gratitude.

Later that night, after I’d driven Georgette and Megann back to Jamaica and Brooklyn and loaded the last of our worldly goods into the Subaru, and swept and vacuumed one last time, I pulled into our driveway in Nyack, and entered our new home in a daze. It was only about ten, but we’d been going steady since 5.30 a.m., and it might as well have been 3 a.m. G was asleep in his new room, and M and I poured each other very full glasses of red wine, though I was so wrecked I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish mine. I had just raised my glass to her when a not-shy-at-all knock reminded us that our new front door was basically a tall, latticed window.

We both startled. And I jumped again when, through the door, I made out the uniform of an EMT. Actually, jumped isn’t quite right—the sensation was more like falling, a sudden, neuro-electical dread that holds you in place more than dizzies you. Who could be hurt? Gus is upstairs…

“I was just driving by and noticed you’d left a door open on your car,” the EMT dude said once I had the door open.

I looked at the Subaru. The light was on inside the car, and a side door was open, with a blanket I’d used to protect a frame spilling out. I must have brought the frame in, and forgotten to go back to lock it up.

“We just moved in,” I said, as if that should explain everything.

I followed him up the four cement stairs to the driveway to lock the car and put away the blanket, continuing to narrate our day, being out-of-our-minds tired, etc. He was nice and sympathetic.

“Someone thought the blanket was maybe a body hanging out of the car,” he said.

Someone? But I thought you had been driving by? (I thought this. I did not say this.) He really was trying to help. “Yikes. I guess I could see where they might,” I said. “Well, it’s great to know people here notice things.”

“Yep, they do.” And he said good night, closed himself in his ambulance, and was gone.

Four nights later, we still hadn’t quite recovered our equilibrium when M came to me with a concerned look on her face.

“Do you smell that?” I thought I did. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. But it seems like it’s getting stronger.” I opened the lightweight door to the cellar stairs and descended part way.

“I think it’s coming from where the furnace is,” M insisted, her voice now charged with real concern. “Do you think it’s gas?” And before I could answer: “I’m taking Gus out of here.”

While I went down the stairs and made a futile search (what was I looking for? Isn’t natural gas invisible?), M called Orange & Rockland, the gas company, and conveyed that there was an odor from where the gas main entered our house, and that it smelled vaguely of skunk, but didn’t have that pungent, sweet-sour finish of skunk, and that we’d been in the house for less than a week, and though we’d had it inspected, we couldn’t be sure it was safe. By the time she was off the phone, I had G bundled up, and she took him out to the curb across the street to wait for the gas man.

It being March, it was not warm out, and when I joined M and G out on the curb a few minutes later, I wished I’d pulled on something warmer. We were, right then, resigned that our new home might explode right before our eyes—that was the kind of week we were having, and we’ve seen enough movies—when out from under the porch came a very dusty, bedraggled, almost orange-yellow and black skunk.

Too astonished to laugh for real in the moment, we sat there stunned for several no-fucking-way! long seconds, and then practiced what would say to the gas guy. When he arrived, he listened patiently to our assurances that we’d encountered plenty of skunks in our past, just not this close, or potent. He shortly thereafter summed us up for what we were: “city people.” To hear him tell it, there were a lot of us descending on the region, and some of us were alright, but others thought they knew all there was to know, and they could be a real pain in the ass. We’d do alright, he said before packing up to leave. We just had a lot to learn.


Several months later, a Sunday.

Yesterday, G and I had a swim lesson at the Y, met mommy for a show at the Nyack town hall—featuring Bill Irwin, the baggypants clown—and then dressed Gus for the Nyack Halloween Parade. I carried a banner for the Rockland Parent-Child Center in front of G in the parade, while M pushed him in his stroller (as Sam I am, from Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham). More people in the crowd knew Gus than me, which I took as a good sign. Afterwards, when I’d put him to bed, M and I had another of our delayed shocks that this is our life now: swim lessons, community fundraisers, our weekend days “off” built around events and parties for children. To top off our big Saturday night, we ate a couple of home-baked chocolate chip cookies (with those sick 60 percent cocoa chips from Ghirardelli), and watched a couple of episodes of LOST on DVD. From the vantage of our own selves not five years ago, we were complete and utter dorks. But you know what else? It was ok. And not a resigned, ok-fine, but a really OK.

Nyack has turned out to be the town we hoped—a little bit less convenient to get to from the city, and a bit more distinctive because of it. A terminus for the underground railroad (by which African Americans gained their freedom) in the mid-1800s, a major launching point for service men leaving the U.S. for the Europe during WWII, and a magnet for artists and various utopians in the years after the war, Nyack and the surrounding villages, depending on the light and the way the river reflects it, appear haunted—or blessed. It’s not a community of repressed careerists, but scores of people who are still openly seeking who they really are. Students, especially: Nyack’s surrounded by religious and international schools; on the trail that runs along the banks of Hudson north of town, I’ve heard as many or more languages spoken as I ever did on the F, B, or D trains in the city. (And though the Halloween parade wasn’t as hip as Williamsburg, it served just fine.)

It’s not as if the move and adjustment have all gone smoothly. The contractor who sold us our house ended up suing us over money set aside in escrow for landscaping. We countersued to defend our decision to hold him to the terms of contract and ended up having to try the case, M and I taking turns interviewing each other on the stand (another story altogether). We recently had a part-time nanny Gus loved poached by another couple we’d introduced her to, and spent $2,600 we don’t have adding insulation to the walls of the house—the first insulation of any kind they’d ever seen.

But we’ve discovered that the gas guy was right: there a lot of us city people moving up this way, including a lot of young families—”young” families with first-time parents in their 30s, or even late 30s, like us. When we first met these fellow transplants, fear-and-loathing of the mall and burbs was always among the first things we talked about. Yet these months later, we don’t like the mall much better (though the open spaces under a roof can really save your ass with a restless toddler on a rainy day). We still confide cravings for the city (mostly food, art house movies, not having to make plans to have an amazing evening). And yet I’ve noticed that, by and large, dread of the burbs has dropped from conversation and I think the reason is quite simple: it’s because, as the parents of small children, the advantages of living here make what we miss seem trivial. Suburban parents may get ridiculed as being the ones who overschedule their kids, drive everywhere in minivans, and consume, as a household, enough energy and food to rival the GNP of a small island nation. But I’ve begun to think the recent epidemic of overparenting is actually an urban phenomenon—a response to the anxiety that one’s kid doesn’t have the advantages of burbs. And it is a relief, frankly, not to be swept up in the competitive parenting of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Everyday, when Gus hits the parks, the river walk, the library, the green market, or child center, and hangs out with other little ones without an express playdate, we worry less that we’re not doing enough, or that he’d should really be at the pre-pre-school in Tribeca that gets its kids into the kindergarten that fast-tracks to Exeter and Harvard. or going to the Montessori on Mercer with the Mozart and Pollock toddler seminars. When we leave the house, walk to the Hudson, and feed the ducks, or kick up a piles of leaves, collect acorns and chase after things—to judge by the look on Gus’s face, nothing could be better. Which isn’t to say we, or other Nyack parents we’ve met, don’t want our kids to have a chance to make it into top schools, it’s just that we seem to be coming around to the idea that the best thing for a kid might be…a childhood.

It would be fatuous to say that as long as Gus is happy, so are we. We have vowed to take further advantage of the Lower Hudson for ourselves, too, and to plan our lives so that once Gus is in day school, M doesn’t feel trapped. But the greatest surprise so far being out of the city is that Gus being happy really does make us happy most of the time. we’re not in opposition with our old life; we miss it, but we wouldn’t go back, either.

Probably, it’s just an obvious transition for new parents—but it wasn’t obvious to us, not having known we wanted to be parents in the first place, or even after being together more than a decade. having only been a parent 21 months, it’s already as core to my identity as the 17 years I’ve spent in my so-called career. (Good thing, too, as our adventures in unplanned parenthood continue—we’re now expecting a sib for Gus. If you want my advice, do not buy a house and have a second child in the same year. ) You may hear some complaints from us yet, it won’t be at the good fortune of having a home in Nyack.

3 responses

  1. Arthur Evans says:

    Hi Brad,

    I enjoyed reading your diary–welcome (back) to suburbia! As another non-Dog Person who ended up in the suburbs with a wife, two boys and a goldfish, I understand how these things happen. I discovered, as you have, that it’s both more challenging and way more fun than I expected.

    Hope everything is going well!


  2. Jerry D. says:

    Brad, now that you’ve discovered what a skunk really smells like, I’m sure you’ve gotten used to the sounds of the plumbing, the expansion and contraction of the heating system (unless you’re radiated) and you’ve found that lucky leak(s) in the roof. Please keep this going and let us know how you are holding out with your commute. Cheers.

  3. Tory says:

    What a wonderfully heartwarming series. I just love the way you write, Brad, and am so very happy for you and your family. Nyack sounds wonderful, and I’m certain a better place for having you there. Congratulations on everything!!

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