– “It’s an abstract world.
You’re an abstract man.”
~~ The Ramones
– “I am a city child. I live at the Plaza”
~~ Kay Thompson
Eloise is my favorite children’s book not only because of its flawless wit and masterful timing, but because Eloise the child reflects a truth not usually spoken of in the context of childhood:
She is lonely.
Eloise is intelligent enough to live as a small adult, and vulnerable enough to have endless faith her restless adventuring mother will always send for her, though of course she never does. The adults in her life are either absurdly stupid or hired substitutes; they are either affectionate but unreliable alcoholics or they’re frustrated outcasts. She relates most to the latter.
Eloise knows loss. Eloise knows bravery. And hilarity, even in solitude. Eloise is bright enough to outwit her tutor and compulsive enough to draw pictures on hotel walls.
My son is Eloise’s twin.
Recently he took his first trip to New York City. Each of my children are to have a trip of their choosing upon the transition to double digits: an age that feels to me equal parts a turning from (childhood) and toward (independence). My son chose, I’m sure through no maternal influence, to explore Manhattan.
Or, more accurately, to obsessively play chess in Greenwich Village at the Chess Forum and with the eccentric, often brilliant street players in Washington Square Park.
It was disconcerting to see my young, chronically disorganized first child adapt with such alacrity to the chaotic speed of the city. Within a day he blended to the environment like camouflage, absorbing new smells, accents, energy, and crowds as if he’d known them since the pram. His temperament is perfectly suited to the urban movement of a busy metropolis: he holds no judgment against anything but stupidity, he speaks quickly and thinks at triple the time of his speech; he is utterly strange and indifferent to those who find him that way. What he appreciates is skill, quality, and competition, and it doesn’t matter if the source of those qualities come from a banker on the Upper East or a drug dealer who talks to squirrels.
Actually, he prefers the man with the squirrels: less pretense, more action.
From the earliest age my first born had preternatural focus. Before he could speak he took apart and put together puzzles of 50, 100, 150 pieces. Deeming the pictures unnecessary, he began to complete the puzzles on their white side, forcing us to maneuver around him for hours in our small dark kitchen. My neck developed a permanent ache from bending over to occasionally help and watch the pictures take form. Eventually a few people told me this was “not normal,” a comment that left me confused, defensive, and cold. He is my son, I would think, that’s all. Not a comparative number on a measuring stick, and not a label to make those of us addicted to cubbies and categories feel at ease. Gifted. Asberger’s. ADHD. Twice gifted (a particularly asinine designation). ODD. OCD. ADD and fuck off please.
Many years later I was to learn the usefulness of labels: they are guides, but only if utilized as such. When one begins and ends with naming, the name, like all form, comes up empty, and creates nothing but its own cage.
Like any mostly functioning mother I am absurdly proud of my children, to the point of being obnoxiously myopic in my opinions of their gifts and beauty. Fortunately I hold these thoughts close to the heart; I know how common my beliefs in the Extraordinary are in the closed maternal world.
My son, though, does exhibit a gift about which I feel open admiration: he possesses a truly adult humility in the context of study. He is as ego-less as he is competitive, and the source of this capacity is a mystery to me. It does not come from me, and it certainly does not flow from his father. He will learn from anyone, in any environment, if there is something of value to be learnt.
The players at Washington Square Park sensed this, and were he to be a true City Child I think he would quickly become as regular to that landscape as the brown skinned nannies, restive junkies, book-heavy students, thin plane trees and great old elms.
My son is a secret. The landscape of his mind he keeps hidden; I am the only one who catches more than a glimpse, and that is simply because of my persistence. He often reminds me of my father – brilliant, angry, depressed – and sometimes of me – melancholic, not quite of this Earth. Mainly, he is just himself, a trickster both toddler and wise old man. I sense he loves the city because he knows he can disappear there, and live among the millions who are also visible and rarely seen.