Unfolding the Map
I've never been to Staten Island except for a quick stop at the ferry slip after a ride across the water from Manhattan. In this post, I make a quick stop to reflect while William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) gets lost a little in the Staten Island neighborhoods. I devote this post to a friend who lived for a time in Staten Island, had a tragedy there, and who has overcome that and other obstacles on her way to happiness and achievement. If life is a journey, hers is now traversing some good roads. To see where Staten Island is located, ferry yourself to the map.
"The lanes descended and shot me across Staten Island; just before it was too late, I pulled out of the oppression of traffic and drove down Richmond Avenue to find the bridge across the Arthur Kill into Perth Amboy, the city (if you follow your nose) that gets to you before you get to it. I don't know how I lost my way on a thoroughfare as big as Richmond, but I did. I could smell Perth Amboy, but I coudn't find it. Instead, I found Great Kills, Eltingville, Huguenot Park, Princess Bay, and Tottenville."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 7
Staten Island, New York
I have a friend who once lived on Staten Island.
She's a petite, just-about-to-turn-30-if-she-already-hasn't, somewhat quirky, redhead who has a ready laugh and an endearing mixture of little girl and adult thrown together.
She and I weren't always very close. We met each other when I was in graduate school, studying for my PhD in New Orleans, and she was assigned to share an office with me. To say that our relationship was strained was putting it mildly. I was in my late 30s at the time, she was in her early 20s, and it was like we were from two different worlds. While we had moments of very good sharing and a realization that we were probably more alike than not, we also had moments of anger, frustration and misunderstanding that occasionally made for a tense office situation. She was working out her early 20s anger, finding her way and her voice and I, well, I was working out my late 30s anger and trying to find my way and my voice.
I think that it was after she left that we both realized that we really, truly liked and respected each other. She stayed long enough to get her Masters, inquired into and was recruited by a federal agency, and went to work for the national government helping to protect our country and our leaders from security threats. I couldn't believe that this little waif of a woman would do this type of work, but my impression was that she loved the job. Perhaps the agency she worked for was not the greatest - after all, it's hard for any woman to make it in what has traditionally been a redoubt for men. But she made it through her boot camp and was given important assignments. When she eventually left they worked very hard to persuade her to stay.
She was stationed for a while in the New York City area, and lived in Staten Island. She found a boyfriend, a quiet state police cop. She liked where she lived, which if I remember was a little apartment owned by a retired cop who looked after her like a father might his daughter or grandaughter. Life seemed to be going well. She and her boyfriend came out and visited us on their way through New Mexico to visit her parents in Colorado.
The boyfriend became a fiance, but there were signs of trouble. He was moody, and had been dealing with depression through medication for years. By then she had left her job. I hadn't heard from her in a while and then one day she called me up. She was going to be passing through New Mexico to Colorado again and wanted to visit me. I asked about her fiance. She was unusually quiet, told me that he had committed suicide, and that she would tell me more when she saw me.
When she arrived, she looked terrible - flat, and like all the life had drained out of her. She told me that she had an argument with her fiance. Before she knew it, he had shot himself in the head with a revolver right in front of her. She spent some time in an institution where they gave her medications. She had racked up a horrible set of bills because of her hospitalization and care that she could never hope to pay off. We talked, I listened. I couldn't do much consoling, because she was never one who wanted to be consoled. But I couldn't get out of my head the image of pain and shock, anger and betrayal that I sensed behind the eyes of this young woman who once drove me crazy in the office and who carried a gun and put herself potentially in harm's way because of her job but who now seemed so human and so fragile. She really seemed like the little waif I sometimes saw her as, but this time very lost, very lonely, and very afraid.
She moved away from Staten Island. She went back to New Orleans to finish her PhD. I'm not sure if that is what she wanted or if it was because she didn't know what else to do. But finish it she did, despite the usual academic obstacles that are thrown in the way of graduate students. Once she received her PhD, she got a job at a small southern Alabama university.
She has become one of the most popular teachers on her campus, bringing a new life to her department and inserting some feminism into criminal justice studies on campus. She threw herself into a stuffy academic program and brought her talents and best features to bear. She found herself, somehow and somewhere, in the depths of her tragedy. She pulled on her vast resources of inner strength to grasp at the opportunities presented her. I don't know if she has any post-traumatic stress disorder from what she went through, but I do know that she has succeeded in spite of them.
I have been proud of her and her accomplishments, and I care for her very much. Recently, she got married. Though I wasn't able to attend her wedding, she and her new husband visited us recently. It was great to see her happy after all these years, and wonderful to hear about her accomplishments.
If life is a continuous series of journeys, and if one can map lives, I can imagine what her life map would look like. There would be roads and pathways through forests of indecision, dangerous passages through mountains of hardship, drops into the darkest and deepest valleys of relationship and loss. There would be forks in the road where choices must be made and dead ends where the choices didn't work out. But, there would also be, especially lately, flat roads along the ocean shore of happiness or the endless plains of contentment. On these roads, she can look toward where the sun sets and know that wherever her life leads from now on, she has the capability and the wherewithal to meet any challenge ahead of her.
So, using a nickname that is a remainder from our contentious office days, I'll give her a shout-out: "You've done so well, shithead! It makes me happy that you are happy, it makes me proud that you've come so far despite the hardship and tragedy, and I will be in your corner for as long as you need me." She'll blow off my kudos, but inside, she'll appreciate it.
The band that I most associate with the woman I wrote of above is a band that she really enjoyed, Garbage. This song, Push It, has lyrics that I think probably best embody my friend. It helps that she and Shirley Manson have a slight resemblance in build, hair color, and style.
If you want to know more about Staten Island
SILive (Staten Island Advance) (newspaper)
Staten Island Borough President
Staten Island Ferry
Staten Island History
Staten Island Museum
Visit Staten Island
Wikipedia: Staten Island
Wikipedia: Staten Island Ferry
Next up: Lakewood, New Jersey