I lived in Queens, New York - Astoria, to be precise - in the mid-eighties. The subway train was the double-R back then and the last stop was Ditmars Boulevard. In fact, the conductor always announced over the PA system: "Ditmahs bull-vard, last stop on the Double-R. Ditmahs, Ditmahs, last stop."
One night, very late, I came into the station with a backpack of broken dreams. I'd started out some twenty-eight hours earlier in Athens, Greece. I'd lost my girl in France somewhere when we'd split company in a country town in Normandy. I'd also lost my favorite wool sweater that I'd carried all over Europe. I left it on the train I'd transferred from. I was more upset about the sweater than I was about that girl. So the conductor screeched that shrill "last stop, last stop" and I trudged out of the train and down the stairs thinking about journeys, adventures and their final acts.
Sometimes the story is about its ending. Perhaps all stories are.
The details aren't important, but I remember them all the same. I was coming home at maybe six-thirty one morning, I worked in restaurants back in those days, usually closing the one I worked in and then closing the bar I went to afterwards. It was crisp and clear with a river chill from the East River not but a few blocks away. Dawn was hinting behind the endless rows of buildings. There were people out and on their way to work or out for coffee or a bagel or gooey cinnamon bun from the bakery.
A little girl of five or so bundled in a red-fringed, pink parka, dirty and worn yet serviceable - not unlike the neighborhood she called her own - held the hand of an old man, her mittened hand in his brown and wrinkled, strong and proud hand. He wore a tan overcoat buttoned to his neck and under a fifties style hat a fringe of grey hair was trimmed neatly.
The man stooped a bit and walked slowly but there was pride in his stoop and his step - the sort of pride that only comes with character and honor. The girl looked up at him adoringly. For some reason, so did I.
They were a few paces ahead of me and stopped at a crosswalk, waiting to cross Ditmars. I lived on the side we were on and didn't need to cross. The light changed and they started out. I'd been fumbling to light a cigarette and stopped myself near the curb to cup the match which blew out in the wet wind. I turned my back to the wind and glimpsed the girl and the man. As I dropped the match I saw the girl look down the street and stop. Surprise and joy flushed her face and she pulled the hand of the old man and tugged him to a stop maybe a third of the way through the street.
The wind turned her words to me and I heard her sweet voice say, "Oh, Abuelo, look. Mira, mira!"
I looked in the direction of her gaze but saw nothing of note, only buildings and bricks and wires and signs and pigeons and gulls. Their gaze was not up, but more out - straight down the street.
"Santa María, Madre de Dios," the old man said into the wind. I knew it was a prayer, but I couldn't figure why. There was no fear or concern in their faces.
I had to know.
I walk towards them and end up a little behind them and I follow their gaze and...
"My God," I say, perhaps my own attempt at a prayer, although I didn't know it then.
The street rises for a few blocks ahead of me and then slopes off towards the river. There, where all those horizon and perspective lines meet a full, huge, shimmering orange moon is setting right in the middle of the street. It is astonishing.
"It is the moon, my child," he says gently, "Esta la luna."
"Estalaluna..." she says it all in one breath, as though it were one word.
He notices me behind him. He smiles and gestures to it, as though he is giving it to me, just as his granddaughter had given it to him, just as wise old men have been giving the moon to beautiful young girls and foolish young men since we all first looked up.
"Esta la luna, esta la luna, esta la luna..." she sings and we laugh and I notice something else. The light has changed, the cars are waiting, but, none blow their horns or curse out their windows, in fact it is quiet and all eyes are on the strange scene we must present.
I point to the crossing signal and the old man realizes we are holding it all up. He laughs and nods toward me then looks toward the far curb. He pirouettes the singing girl with his one hand and grabs my elbow with the other and we head to the sidewalk. The cars rumble, the elevated clicks and clacks in the distance, air brakes pop, and time begins again.
"Gracias, thank you," he says, squeezing my shoulder as he looks me in the eye and deeper.
"No, no, thank you, I wouldn't have seen it if you hadn't been looking at it." I mean it.
"I didn't see it, it was mi hermosa nieta..."
Yes, his beautiful granddaughter. She showed us her moon. She opened our eyes and stopped time. We smile down at her, still humming her moonsong, and we wonder, with rivertears in our eyes, at how important it all seems.
I watch them as they stroll on down the street, a hear the tinkle of the bell in the bakery and I hope she gets a sweet, gooey cinnamon bun.
I'll never forget it.
Nick: "You can't have a MEss without ME."
(there were chocolate frosted donuts at Donut Sunday)
Thanks, as always, for coming around. I like that you do. I like thinking these words land somewhere and I am glad it was with you.
Peace to you and yours.
(I wrote a song once called Nick and Zack Song. In the bridge there is a line that says, "I'll watch you watch the setting moon." I just now realized it is because of that little girl I knew I wanted to do that with, and for, my boys. I wanted, when they were just infants, to give them the moon which was given to me as is the way of all true stories.)