The first change J noticed that was remarkable during the ride to New York was the mountains of southwest Virginia disappearing into the horizon behind him. He never realized how ‘cradled’ he felt in the Blue Ridge Mountains until now. Suddenly he seemed open and vulnerable in the foothills and tidewater areas nearing the American eastern coast. The last of the mountains diminished as they exited the Shenandoah Valley on I-81. He learned the year before in his history lessons, that this was the entry point for the early German settlers in western Virginia. He wondered if they felt the opposite way he did—closed in and claustrophobic in their new mountain shrouded homesteads. Then again, perhaps it was the cozy, nestled environment of the mountain valleys that attracted them. As soon as he started to speculate what it was that drew Pappy to Summer Hills, Aunt Lisa started a conversation and his wandering mind was jolted back to the here and now.
Behind them, as the Blue Ridge Mountains Slowly became a diminutive darker blue strip on the horizon against the lighter blue sky, Aunt Lisa told J. all about herself. As it turned out, she was married for a time to a handsome, successful, but abusive man, but she filed for divorce ten years ago because, as she put it, was “fed up to here” (raising her hand somewhere vaguely over her head) “ with shiners, welts, and fat lips.” She had a son who would be approximately J’s age but because her ex-husband was a wealthy businessman who held a lot of clout in the political arena, he won custody of him, she was denied visitation, and she has not seen him since the divorce. When J asked what her son’s name was, she only said, “Jacob” in a short, curt way that he took to mean that she didn’t care to talk about her estranged family any further; so he didn’t pry.
Lisa was an accomplished (and fairly successful) artist in New York. She didn’t have an exhibit in a gallery yet, but she remained hopeful. She got by earning her living selling her work by word of mouth. Some weeks were particularly hard when she ran low on her bank account until she could sell her latest work. From the way J could infer, she must make big bucks per painting. The sparkle in her eyes and the enthusiasm in her voice as she spoke about art, told J that she was very dedicated and proud of her work. She told him that she had always, since childhood, felt a ‘calling’ to paint and draw. It wasn’t something she wanted to do but something she sensed she had to do. J understood. He had always had the same driven impulse when it came to his guitar.
She lived in a penthouse on the West Side of mid-town Manhattan on 101st and West Park Ave. right across from Central Park. ‘Penthouse’ was a glorified term meaning: Remodeled Attic. It was a decent area even though it was on the West Side. Any further south, she would not be able to afford Manhattan at all. Any further north and she would be in Spanish Harlem, which was not too safe at night. J was comforted even more when she told him about Central Park and how it was a place akin to a ‘touch of country’ in the middle of the city. A lot of Lisa’s art used Central Park as background.
They drove on through Washington D.C. and Baltimore and finally stopped outside of Philadelphia to stay the night. In the morning they moved on and came to New York via the New Jersey turnpike at about 10 a.m. It was a leisurely ride with no rush. They weren’t in a race. She had timed their arrival to Manhattan perfectly—no morning traffic jams, and no noontime rush, though J couldn’t imagine the traffic being worse.
Cars were moving nearly bumper to bumper at sixty miles an hour and lane changing was considered a professional stunt-driving maneuver. J was relatively unnerved but Lisa assured him that this was light, normal traffic.
All the jitters from feeling like a high-speed blood cell whizzing through a capillary soon faded when J saw suddenly, in the distance ahead, a line of skyscrapers taller than any buildings he had ever seen. He’d seen pictures in books and depictions in movies of New York, but actually being there in person couldn’t compare to any artificial rendering of the enormity of the great metropolis.
On their approach to mid-town, the highway appeared to J. to sink. He thought they were going to plunge into the Hudson River, and then he saw why the highway was descending. Three huge, gaping archways appeared after a sweeping curve and J. realized they were about to enter a tunnel—the Lincoln Tunnel. He was amazed at the technology and engineering of the structure. They exited the tunnel and went up Riverside Drive. On their left, Riverside Park followed them up-town and J. instantly fell in love with the Hudson River landscape. On the right, tall apartment buildings loomed. J. had to press his cheek against the passenger side window just to see the tops of the buildings, and some buildings he still couldn’t make out the tops.
Lisa turned into the forest of structures, found a parking space, and soon they were on foot with J’s belongings on a borrowed pushcart. They rounded a corner on Central Park West to the building Aunt Lisa lived in, but she started into the lobby leaving J. standing and staring across the street. She had to turn back to retrieve the awestruck boy.
“What’re you doing J.?”
He didn’t even turn to look at her, “Is that it? Is that Central Park?”
“Sure is honey. What do you think of it?”
“Okay. Come on then. Let’s get unpacked. There will be many, many good times over there.”
Aunt Lisa’s penthouse was only accessible by an old freight elevator at the back of the top floor hallway. It opened to a small, walk-in closet sized room with a heavy door opposite the elevator door. This was Aunt Lisa’s front door to her penthouse studio. Inside, there was one large room with a sunken area in the middle that served as a sitting area. In it, there was a T.V., couch, love seat, coffee table, and various lamps. Around the sitting area was the studio proper; kitchen, dining area, and fireplace. Opposite, an entire side was devoted to art; easel, backdrops, sitting stool, and a Medium Hutch containing paints, brushes, and other art supplies. Along one wall there was a short hallway with two bedrooms and a bathroom.
J. thought he was in a luxury apartment but Lisa told him it was “middle-of-the-road” for Manhattan. It certainly was a far cry from his cabin in Virginia where the décor consisted of a mix of “Pelt and Hide” and “Wood and Chinking”. The place was clean and frilly enough without being too girly for a twelve-year old.
Lisa showed J. where to put his belongings. His room was across the hall from his Aunt Lisa’s and it was small, but cozy. He had enough room for his few items with some to spare. She had already prepared it for him by moving her work area into the main room. She told him, “I was feeling cooped up in here. I thought it would do my art better out there where I can stretch out, so it works out for the both of us.”
On the side of the main room was a sliding glass door that opened onto the roof that surrounded the penthouse like a one hundred-fifty foot wrap around porch. There was patio furniture and a small gas grill on the roof. Over one side, J. could look down and see Central Park spread out before him, and the right side looked over 101st St.
J. spent the rest of the day unpacking his meager earthly possessions and relaxing in his room, while Aunt Lisa went to the market down the street. He thought, “I really might like it here.”