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The Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 5
Insomniac Chronicles

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2006, 2007 Jill Johnston

I was sitting on my stoop one evening watching low-lying clouds race across the moon. The sky was inky dark blue, the clouds so low the city was lighting them up. A cold front was coming -- a "seasonable" 49 degrees. Bundled up against it in my sub-arctic four layers, an undershirt, a T-shirt, a sweater and a winter jacket, when things get really seasonable I'll wear silk leggings under my pants. Nobody says "leggings" any more but I grew up in them, of one sort or another. That was when the snows came in waves, and if the snow was deep enough and you lived in a two-story house, as I did, you could with no harm jump into it off your roof -- provided of course you were wearing leggings. The house was in Little Neck, Long Island, and I lived there, aged five to eleven, with my grandmother. My mother, working in Manhattan, came home on weekends. "Think about your grandmother," Ingrid always says when I can't get to sleep. She will ask me questions about her, what she wore in all seasons, what was in her house, who her neighbors were, where she went for maintenance or entertainment, what she said or told me, how she laughed, and many other details until my memory is exhausted and I can't think of anything new about her and get bored repeating it all. Now Ingrid just says, "Go into the house, look at each thing as you move along, beginning with what you see when you open the front door." Well first I see my desk, which was a tall secretary, painted a distressed or bleached-out green, with two high book shelves on top, a hinged wooden lid to open for my writing surface, a leather-cornered blotter on it, and two big drawers underneath where all my games were stashed. It was a serious looking desk. And I like remembering it, but I'm not good at moving along from one object to the next, and getting to sleep in the process. I lose interest. My mind wanders. I start thinking about the things this exercise is supposed to steer me away from -- the plight of girl children in Africa, the people we're killing in Iraq, the harrowing afternoon I spent midtown going from my dentist's office to another for a root canal, including a singular elevator drama; or "My Brilliant Career," which for several years now has turned on a big book featuring a subject more obscure than the discovery of Longitude or the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, diversified by an exotic personal story concerning how I was not supposed to have been born. You would never have known this to see me as a grade school girl in Little Neck. My grandmother was Queens's, maybe New York's, let's say America's, best caretaker, and I looked quite wanted, even without a father, a man simply said by my mother to be dead. (Florence's father next door was "dead" too, a fact or a rumor not considered noteworthy.) Did my grandmother know how I got to her house? It's always been one of Ingrid's questions. And I never found out whether my grandmother knew or not. I certainly didn't know myself. And clearly my oblivion was a blessing. Otherwise I can't imagine how I would have looked so good, or gotten all A's in subjects and deportment at P.S. 94. I was completely thought-free. Such empty-headedness would help me now in getting to sleep. As would the utter ignorance I had of the world and its terrible nefariousness. My world was Shirley Temple, Jack Benny, Black Beauty, The Little King, Dick Tracy, Queen Zixi of Ix, Snow White, The Katzenjammer Kids, Nancy Drew, my Encyclopedia Britannica, my bikes and sleds and marbles and picture-puzzles and tree-climbing and the summer Good Humor Man who brought Dixie cups that revealed baseball players when you pulled off the lids and found the players under removable transparencies. Oh my grandmother muttered sometimes about a man called Herbert Hoover, so I knew there was an entity called a president. That he ran something known as a government I was not privy to. Now, after a night of such uncertain sleep that I reach first thing for my journal to record all its vicissitudes not least of which are my struggles against supporting the pharmacological industry, I then can read in the paper that our brainy head of state has said, in reference to the "terrorists" he created in Iraq, "Any time you kill someone, you're a criminal." Reading on, I find what can serve as a commentary on this: "We are approaching a Saddam-like magnitude for the murder of innocents in Iraq." On Larry King one evening I saw five men and one woman billed as being "Beyond Positive Thinking." They all said they had "no bad days." I was waiting for a tip on how to expedite their schemes, like visualizations, but none was forthcoming. I'll just have to falter along. One thing they said though, I already do: "Surround yourself with images of the thing you want." Papers and pictures from my "big book" are choking the apartment. What I want is to get it all out of here. I believe I'll sleep better. Most late evenings now we play Scrabble, a supposed tiring preliminary to the grandmother exercises that will render me insensate. Ingrid is a master of the 50-point seven-letter word score. Seven or more, that is. As a Dane, born and bred, her English is superior. The other night she came up with "glittery." When was the last time you heard or used the word glittery? Well the next morning the newspaper had that very word on its front page, with the headline: "In Glittery Atlantic City, 4 Walked Dark, Deadly Path." The news, involving four murdered prostitutes, was bad, the coincidence pleasantly stupefying. My mother was a great player of games on the weekends when she came home from Manhattan. She had bought them all herself, mostly from F.A.O. Schwartz. She was working then at the Waldorf Astoria as a live-in nurse, and occupying a room on the 17th floor. When I stayed there with her, I became like Eloise at the Plaza. I led a charmed childhood. What I didn't know, as the saying goes, never hurt me, and I remember nothing after the age of five when you begin remembering things, that was lastingly injurious. I was trauma-free until I was 20. My mother fought with my grandmother sometimes and could leave the house slamming the front door saying she'd never see her again, but I knew she'd be back. Years ago I took Ingrid out to Little Neck to see the house -- 4203 247th Street -- and try to gain entrance. I knocked on the door, and the woman who lived there opened it and invited us in. I was pretty excited. "That's where the desk was, the radio, my grandmother's chair, the rose-petal lamp, the China closet, the Persian rug, the Chickering baby grand...." "That's where the Christmas tree always was." But where was the all-important square steel grating embedded in the floor that gave forth our heat from the basement coal furnace, and served as dryer for my hair after it was washed by my grandmother in her deep kitchen sink? The grating is now a fossil, buried under this woman's wall-to-wall green carpeting. Everything was gone of course -- except the outline of a house and my personal experience of having lived there. Standing in the first room, called the "sun-porch," gazing down through the living and dining rooms toward the kitchen, suddenly an unknown force struck me in the solar plexus, almost throwing me off my feet. My hand went straight to my heart. I was revisiting some sacred grandmother place. Failing her memory as a sleep potion, Ingrid has sometimes tried my boarding school, where I was sent at eleven, spending another six years in glorious insensibility. I now had plenty of company, living with 85 other girls. And none of them had fathers! I never saw them anyway. The war was raging in Europe, and I knew we had a president called Franklin Roosevelt, but he did things all by himself. I still didn't know the president had a government. Now that I know, what good, I'd like to ask, does it do me? I read that our "aging system of American-style democracy is beset with dry rot, cynicism, chicanery and fraud." Or that, "With the verdict of the elections, the people want to let Iraqis handle their own troubles from here on out, while we bring our soldiers home." How nice of us. I'm "people" -- is this what I want? If I destroy a country, should the "troubles" I caused as a result be mine or theirs to "handle"? While awaiting word on this, I have created a personal advisory committee, conceived for my "big book." No one knows they're on it until I tell them, and that tends to happen when the subject comes up, and advice is unwittingly volunteered. It's a great system. I wonder if there's a committee in our building to replace the dead tree outside our stoop. It still gives leaves, but when fall comes they don't change colors; they go directly from green to a pathetic grim yellow before fluttering to the street. Ingrid says the tree is dead because the trunk hollowed out. The building next door has a nice new Linden tree. I'm fond of our dead tree of course. We've had it, dead or alive, for two decades. The dead are everywhere and I often feel certain I'm as dead as I am alive. I see the magnificent magnolia just outside my boarding school sally port entrance, an item in any sleep-inducing litany invoking those six unconscious years. But St. Mary's -- that was its name, a beautiful castellated brick building standing on a high promontory overlooking the Hudson River in Peekskill New York -- was not the secure place that my grandmother's house was. And security is what one wants in sleep missions. I was no less safe or routinized at St. Mary's, by the way a High (very High) Episcopal nunnery, not Catholic, and had plenty of time to run free just as in Little Neck; however, family was naturally missing, replaced by the impersonal institutional presence. The school was really an upscale orphanage. And I became so attached to it that leaving for vacations turned into rites of exile. Now it's impossible to remember the place without feeling the pain of what happened to it when Governor Pataki, as the Mayor of Peekskill, sold it around 1984 to developers who gutted the interior and turned it into condominiums or rental apartments, with the new name: Chateau Rive. Fortunately we don't have to drive by it. In New York City, we drive past several buildings that Ingrid claims are mine. Two of them are churches whose contents and histories figure in the vast store of papers and pictures choking our apartment. Passing by one or the other of them, Ingrid invariably says, "There's your church," and I mutter agreeably, "Yeah, there's my church." But to my glittery surprise, last week she added another building -- the Waldorf Astoria, where I once played Eloise. We were passing it on the way to see my dentist on 60th and Madison. "There's your Waldorf," she said matter-of-factly. "So what buildings," I countered, "do you own in Copenhagen?" And Ingrid didn't hesitate: "All of them."


©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.

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