When I was 8 years old, my father put me on the crosstown bus to go to a birthday party without quite telling me where the party was. It was 1984 and I must have looked pitiful standing there in front of Jefferson Market Library in my party dress, holding a present, lost. I had a quarter (we downtown kids always had exactly one quarter, in case of emergency), so I tried calling home. No answer. I pushed the receiver down before the answering machine came on so I’d have another shot. By my own wits, I eventually made it to the party.
My new book comes out this month. It’s about my bohemian poet father and me and our shared love of the influential mid-century New York City poet Frank O’Hara. It wound up being a partial biography of O’Hara — and a full memoir of my complicated relationship with my dad, a great poet and genius art critic and loving-but-sort-of-all-over-the-place father.
When Father’s Day comes along, my social-media feeds fill with heartwarming images of fathers playing catch with their children. I didn’t grow up like that. My father never quite knew how to relate to me. The same year he taught me how to touch-type on his IBM Selectric, when I was 6, he showed me the unflinching Holocaust film “Judgment at Nuremberg.” From him, I learned how to keep a baseball box score and how to throw a punch, which he encouraged me to do if I was bothered by the older bully in the Washington Square Park playground. (When I did punch the bully, I cried from shame because I’d hit him in the stomach instead of in the nose, as instructed — I was tiny and couldn’t reach his nose. My father was still proud, because I’d made the boy cry.)
The freedom of a Village childhood was not all bad. Starting in fourth grade at P.S. 41, we were allowed to go out for lunch by ourselves. The summer I was 14, my best friend Asia Wong and I lived alone on St. Mark’s Place when my parents were in the Catskills. We drank and smoked and fooled around with boys. But we fed ourselves mostly buttered noodles at home or pierogi at the Ukrainian 24-hour diner Kiev at 2 a.m. and made it on time to our jobs (she at the mayor’s office, me at St. Mark’s Comics) and our summer classes (she at Parsons, me at Columbia). The first guitar riff of a song by Too Much Joy, whose “Cereal Killers” album we played on a loop in those months, returns me to a feeling of total freedom laced with a constant, not-unpleasant hangover.
And yet, the danger was real. I realize now how lucky I was to have escaped it for the most part even though I was followed, catcalled, groped on the subway, flashed. A kid I babysat for found a gun in the sandbox at Tompkins Square Park. Depending on the neighborhood, sidewalks might be scattered with heroin needles (you had to step lively in Union Square Park), crack vials, or used condoms. At the Ninth Street bus stop each morning, I’d play a scaled-down version of soccer with Whippets canisters.
My son, now fifteen, grew up in Brooklyn and goes to high school in Times Square. He and his friends get up to who-knows-what, just as all teens have forever, but they roam a much safer city. They Google Map their way around. They text each other and their parents throughout the day. And the coddling has come at a price. When their phone batteries die, they struggle. I realized the other day that my son didn’t quite know how to turn on the oven. In those moments, I am grateful that we ‘80s kids had to raise ourselves.
Well, the city raised us, too.
Ada Calhoun’s new book, “ALSO A POET: FRANK O’HARA, MY FATHER, AND ME” is out now.
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