I’m coming clean with this, and right up front. I am an anxious person. I wake up most days filled, not with dread, but simple fear, behind a layer or two, a mask, of calm. It’s a kind of fraught expectancy. On the worst days, I pop a pill.
It’s probably always been this way. Not quite always. I recall, on the frontiers of early memory, being a more or less fearless child. Not reckless, but simply fearless, especially when faced with the day-to-day adventurous challenges that a little boy will face on the proverbial sidewalks of New York. I was not undersized, though decidedly underweight and, so, tall and slight at once. The housing project in which I spent the first phase of my formation was riddled with man-made, downsized, canyons and valleys. Mainly crafted of brick, the building blocks of this complex, there were precipitous drops, say from one level, usually street level, or slightly elevated, of passage between buildings to a garden level, perhaps below grade, where certain apartments let out on tiny plots of land the tenants pretended were theirs. To me, they were landing zones for my jumps, or drops. I never suffered a break, or a bad fall, never knocked out, and never discovered. Most importantly, never discovered by my otherwise ever-vigilant mother—from whom I hid nothing unless I could otherwise help it. She did suss out, in one famous incident, the time I and my gang of seven- and eight-year-olds ran riot on the gravel strewn flat tar roofs that joined all the buildings in a single city block to one another without any of the impediments one found to pass from one section of apartments to another at street level. There was a low retaining wall, high to us, who could barely peer over it on tiptoe. No vertiginous views. These were low-rise apartments, planned well before the days of realizing Corbusier’s vision of celestial cities that scraped the sooty sky. Nevertheless, any fall would have been fatal. I was not so slight that I would float down, flutteringly, like a feather. There was no thought of falling, and never an idea of seeing how it would be to scale that wall.
The roof was freedom to run, at full speed, as fast as spindly developing legs could carry us, for maybe 10 or 15 seconds. Such runs were exhilarating, not least of all, because at the time of my ultimate confession to Mommy, we, the gang, had only just discovered access to the open air atop our homes, and the spaciousness the vaguely hostile planes of the rough-grained surfaces up there offered us. I must have arrived back after one of these maiden flights to the safety of our first floor digs still somewhat flush from the exertion of running back and forth, purposeless, willy-nilly, until we split up: probably closing in on some meal time we knew intuitively approached.
My mother, long since a past mistress at asking the direct pertinent question and, as it turned out, already having received early warnings on the parental telegraph inherent in a community, tight-knit, and sharing the common fate of all inhabitants of what in rural New England would constitute a small town and yet, in the Bronx, covered a mere four city blocks, dense with full occupancy, a settlement, though no shtetl, of five thousand souls. “Where were you?” she asked, almost nonchalant. “Up on the roof.” “And were you doing that running up there Howie? With your friends? And who led you up there?” “Yeah, running.”
“Well then, Howie, come here,” she said, suddenly in deadly earnest, and not really interested in responses to those supernumerary questions. Likely she asked for effect, and to create an air of inquisition to deepen the sense of seriousness in me. “I want you to promise me something. Wait a minute,” as she headed into my big sister’s bedroom. She came back with a ponderously thick blue-covered volume, and put it down on the table next to the chair in the living room in which she sat to watch her morning soap operas on television. I knew enough to know this must be the Bible of which I had heard conversation, and somehow I knew of swearing on the Bible, and the solemnity of the oath one took in so doing.
“Put your hand here,” she said, lightly touching the cover, the back cover. I observed she had not asked me first to wash my hands, invariably grimy at that hour of the day. This was serious. I put my hand lightly on the book and she put her hand lightly on my own and pressed it down, as if to ensure contact. “I want you to promise me you will never never go up on the roof and run again. Never go up on the roof for anything. No playing up there. You promise?”
“I promise.” And I never did venture beyond the fourth floor in any of the walk-up buildings of Hillside Homes. Not ever again. Not even after a couple of years, just before we moved away, during my tenth year, when I was in the forbidden precincts of my sister’s bedroom, on some errand to retrieve something she was too lazy to get herself, and I noticed that book casually on her desk. It was a grown-up desk, as she was practically a grown-up, valedictorian of her class at the public school, K through 8, that I still attended, about to graduate and attend the Bronx High School of Science, necessitating a ride on two buses and rising at 5:30 in the morning to get there. I had already attended PS78 more than long enough to read easily the words in 36-point type on the cover of that thick blue volume: Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, Abridged Second Edition.
I was probably already a bit of the Freudian I had always been, and somehow in all of this I believe were implanted the seeds of what bore the fruit of the other tree, little spoken of in the Garden of Eden, emerging fully mature, and sprouting, as the Original Father and Mother, covering their shame, were driven away, the Tree of Anxiety, a genetic mutation perhaps of those other two growths that have gotten all the attention in the Judeo-Christian era, the ones so readily confused as to which to eat of, and which not. Anxiety, close cousin, if you like, of knowledge, and synonymous with life, which we are denied beyond a pitifully, cruelly brief share. Though of anxiety, we may share in this without bound, as there seems as well to be no limit to the products of good and evil in the world.