During the Mississippi River floods of 1882, a reporter from the New Orleans Time-Democrat rode a steamboat packet called The Susie up the river from New Orleans to survey the inundation. Aside from seeing cattle standing impassively in floodwaters up to their nostrils, and watching frantic farmers evacuating hogs from their temporary quarters in a back bedroom to a waiting pirogue or skiff, the newspaper reporter noted with astonishment the cool obstinacy displayed by homeowners along the flooded banks.
"After weeks of privation and suffering," he wrote, "people still cling to their houses and leave only when there is not room between the water and the ceiling to build a scaffold on which to stand. It seemed to be incomprehensible, yet the love for the old place was stronger than that for safety."
My own steamboat, the Manhattan 104 uptown bus was bearing me somewhere above Central Park at two in the morning during a January snowstorm. For a moment, I couldn't quite remember the name of my destination. Upper West Side? Morningside Heights? 113th Street? I sat slumped in my seat near the window, breathing fog portraits on the window, acutely aware that I was not expected anywhere.
I used to believe that the inability to move from the spot one is rooted manifests itself later in life, when the little demands of living immobilize you in a kind of winding sheet: the presence of possessions too difficult to dislodge, for example, or the fact that the coffee cart man remembers that you take milk and two sugars in your coffee, and that he calls you "Pretty Eyes" every time he sees you.
When we are young, we do not require the concept of home. We don't need one; we fancy ourselves home wherever we are currently living. I used to feel that way. Home was something that was waiting for me to find it. But what, then, when I am old and still have not found it? I see myself in the old women of my neighborhood who are seemingly cracked in half and bent toward the earth as if in uninterrupted supplication. They strain to look at my face to ascertain whether or not it's pretty, because that's what old women do; that's what I will do, I'm sure. Will I have stuck it out long enough in my current neighborhood to join in this habit? And what about the daily ritual that New York widows engage in: stopping in the middle of crowded sidewalks outside grocery stores to be astonished by avocados? I wonder if, by that time and wherever I am, I will think I'm home.
For now, I have dirty slush and thick city snowflakes illuminated by the bright streetlights that line Broadway like Cottonwoods bending over the Mississippi. On the M104, I was returning home to my little alcove in Morningside Heights, my space high above Broadway with a view of the unfinished Cathedral of St. John's the Divine, where the Columbia Bagels guys were working the overnight shift and I hadn't come in that day for coffee-milk and two sugars and coffee cake, and Nussbaum & Wu Café where they'd suddenly become nice to me after a year of gruffness and the skinny little Mexican guy liked to spring to the counter to take my order with a 'WhatcanIgetyouhowareyou?' At twenty-four, my life is composed of the stops (ports-of-call) I make on this asphalt river. My stop was just ahead and, as always, I had a fleeting fear of being on the wrong bus. Then I remembered: I was going home. The streets were wet, not yet full of snow. Stop requested.
© Ashley Shelby
Ashley Shelby recently received her MFA from Columbia University in
nonfiction writing. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Beacon
Street Review, The Portland Review, Gastronomica, Small Spiral Notebook,
Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, Transit (U.K.), Carve, Watchword, and Post
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