I used to climb these steps in a few bounding leaps. Not now. And not in so many years.
The space, the full city block which was converted from an old railroad terminal in the middle of what was known as Hell’s Kitchen, is a post office now, surrounded mostly by near-empty condos and hotels that once reached into the sky with restaurants you needed to make reservations for, months in advance.
And I no longer count the steps, even out of tradition or curiosity. I am too afraid my attention will slip away and I will lose count, or not make it to sixty-six at all. This time, finally, relieved and rewarded, I stood at the top, between a dozen massive Doric columns that faced 8th Avenue.
Inside it is quiet and cool. Email replaced snail mail a generation ago, but the ornate, marble-coated post office remained, an elegant relic, out of tradition and, of course, the grease that spins all wheels in New York City, politics. This once giant manifestation of social services and national pride, now a mausoleum to institutional indifference.
Where there used to be many guards, they’re now impossible to find. Where there were once hundreds on lines that snaked along between velvet, red cordons, there is only Joan, standing alone at the head of the line, and in back of it too.
She has changed, though not greatly, over these last two years.
“Looks like it will take forever to get to a clerk.” I clutched the frayed photo in my pocket. A talisman, a reminder, a way back to happier times.
Joan turned. Her once short brunette hair now long, wispy grey strands that flew off in unsightly directions. “I can’t remember when I wasn’t waiting on this damn line.”
“It’s like that everywhere,” I answered, because I always do, with the same four words, and with just a private tear of regret.
The massive interior of the Central Post Office that could swallow a football field had seventy-eight clerk stations that once teemed with staff, well wishes, and hopes. Only one is open, though the dim bulb over that singular post casts no shadow on any employee.
“They must all be on a break.”
“It’s after three,” Joan said, pulling away the cuff of what was once a very pretty, frilly, white-brocade blouse. “Inexcusable. Just inexcusable.”
Her favorite phrase, even fifty-eight years ago when we first met. She was seventeen and I was sixteen, and we were both graduating from White Plains High School. When I mentioned that there was no reason for the administration to cut off the air conditioners at two p.m. instead of waiting for classes to end at 3:30, her response was, “Inexcusable. Just inexcusable.”
“I have to get back to work soon.”
“And you think I don’t?” she answered.
I knew she didn’t, nor did I. She hadn’t worked in years, and I was recently retired as a project manager for a construction company. “My name is Myron.”
A little cautiously at first, “Joan. And please, it’s not Joanie.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what have you got there?”
Clutching the thick oversized manila envelope to her chest. “Photos.”
“Sending to a loved one?”
“Well, I would hope so.”
“Real, honest-to-goodness photos on real, honest-to-goodness photo paper?”
“Just as it should be.”
“Your vacation, or a special family event, I’ll bet?”
“I would show them to you, but I can’t,” she said, flipping the sealed envelope over a few times. The address and destination were carefully crafted in letters a scribe would be proud of.
“This is for my two nieces.”
“I’ll bet you’re their favorite aunt.”
“I am, I am, and how did you know?”
“If I had a favorite aunt, I would want her to be as proud of me as you are of them.”
Joanie almost blushed. I still liked it when I could make her blush.
I heard footsteps in the great hall. Maybe an echo of bygone years. The single open clerk’s station remained unattended. A half-dozen massive light fixtures, housing layers of concentric wrought iron rings holding hundreds of bulbs, barely lit the cavern. Most of the bulbs had burned out long ago.
There was little in the City budget to replace anything anymore. More so since the typhus outbreak of 2028.
“Since you’re being such a gentleman, and apparently we are going to be stranded here forever, I guess I can share something very special with you,” she said, opened her purse and plunged her hand into a tangle of memorabilia.
“Now, you’re not allowed to say anything bad or not nice, or in any way say what I am wearing is inappropriate.”
“I promise, and swear on the deep and meaningful friendship we have shared these many years.”
“Well then, okay. Here.”
I held the photo like I might a newborn. “It’s beautiful.”
She hesitated. “You aren’t teasing me. People tease me all the time. I guess they see it as a weakness, and take advantage of me.”
“That’s a beautiful spring dress, and standing in front of the Bethesda fountain in Central Park, it’s just charming,” I said, handing it back to her.
“Charming, isn’t it?”
“It took me hours to get myself together at home to look that perfect.”
“Your husband or boyfriend take the photo?”
“Oh, now, I can’t talk about such things with a complete stranger.”
“I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Oh, that’s okay. I can be too sensitive at times. Makes me look foolish.”
“Well, Joan, I don’t think you’re foolish no matter who took these pictures. And I really do have to go.”
She looked at me for the first time, trying, momentarily, to recall the faintest connection from our collective past and quickly gave up, and was visibly disappointed with the possibility of my departure.
“Oh please, I couldn’t take something that personal from you.”
“I want you to have it. You’ve made my day. I usually stand here by myself and your company, well, it’s been a blessing.”
“Do you have a copy of this?”
“Yes,” she said all too quickly.
I loved Joanie from the first time we met to the last we spoke after our second year of college. She had started dating a professor and I took it very hard, but strangely got over it quicker than I would have imagined.
“You are a real lady. I will cherish this forever.”
“You’ve been such a dear…?”
“Yes. You are definitely a Myron, a throwback to good times long gone.”
“It has been a real pleasure to meet you and spend some time together.”
“Just too sweet, Myron.”
I turned and moved towards the exit, nodding to a guard who had long ago nodded off.
There were no steps going down to the street. There never were. There was no street, no skyscrapers, no torrent of traffic or people scurrying about.
There was a moment of familiar blackness, then I woke. My bedroom was exactly as I had left it at 11:35 the night before. Only, the day was new, and nearly seven a.m. It was gray, and Christmas was only weeks away.
I got out of bed, tended to a demanding bladder, and turned off the alarm clock before it sprang into action. It was Saturday. I sat back on the edge of my bed, listened to the steam coming up, and clutched the photo of Joanie in her new spring dress.
I opened my dresser drawer and took out a small tin box that housed chocolates several decades ago. I opened it and removed the photo sitting on top of the pile. On the back, it read, “Joanie” with the date.
I dated my most recent acquisition and slipped it on top of the rest. I took an extra moment repositioning the pile so the sides of the photos lined up perfectly, at least for the moment, and closed the lid.
The photos, all eighteen of them, were taken in front of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Each was a photo of Joanie in a different dress. I had met her there on one of our summer dates. She loved Central Park and insisted that her great-grandfather was a partner in the firm that designed the Bethesda Fountain and the broad brick expanse of space that surrounded it.
I didn’t know how much longer Joanie would appear in my dreams, or how I had managed to come back from those ephemeral encounters with a souvenir of a long, last love.
I don’t think what we had would have lasted much longer than it did, but it caught my heart and influenced the girlfriends I chose for years to come.
Sometimes it happens that way.
Sometimes you get to hold on to a little piece of a Joanie forever.
Author’s Note: Ths piece was first published in The Dime Show Review in April 2017