Ashlee Ralph is sixteen and a Junior at LaGuardia High School near Lincoln Center. It used to be called High School for the Performing Arts and is the school featured in Fame and one of my favorite coming of age films, Last Dance
Ashlee’s parents, Angie and James, are two of my favorite people. Despite their name they’re very Italiancentric, and. Angie’s mom is my mom-replacement of choice; Nanny or Sweet Marie, calls Lucia her youngest daughter as she’s known Lucia since Lucia was four, and they lived in the same apartment complex in de Bronx.
Can’t talk about them without mentioning Katie who was born on my birthday almost 20 and a half years ago; and is Lucia’s Goddaughter. Katie will be the center of her own post soon, because she rules! Some people think literally. Katie’s so much like me it would be scary if we weren’t so great.
Ashlee has three pieces in LaGuardia’s biannual art show; but did she come to her own show? No, she was hanging with her homie friends who look as if they belong in any hood; yet somehow finding studying maths and sciences that I can’t even apply names to, fun.
Lucia and I arrived late to the show. We didn’t know the exact street and thought, somewhat stupidly, that a cab driver would. We were taken for a ride despite our protests, felt utterly un-New York, and did learn the true meaning of the expression, “taken for a ride.”
As Angie’s one of nine kids, it took me awhile to learn about everybody, but Frank, her brother-in-law has always stood out. He’s Ashlee’s Godfather, and came to the exhibit.
Angie met us at the entrance to LaGuardia, after we greeted each other, she said:
“There’s a painting of a body falling from a building. Frank thinks it’s about the Towers.”
Frank, a now retired k-9 cop who was stationed at The Trade Center. He wasn’t scheduled to begin work for hours and had just dropped his wife off at work when he saw smoke from the distance. Before the dispatcher called him, before he heard anything on the radio, he knew, put his light on and sped to the city.
Frank’s and his dog worked endlessly looking first for survivors, then….
We looked at Ashlee’s pieces; one was of a painting that was so bold and unique I can’t begin to describe it, but I loved it. Two more were studies of people. Lucia and I could tell without being told which were Ashlee’s. Her people seem to fly off the page; they have so much life to them.
Then we saw the picture Angie had been talking about: Two towers and one person who was falling arms down, aiming at the unseen concrete. Yes it sure was a 9/11 painting. The students at La Guardia; at Little Luce, my goth goddess’s high school nearby, at all the high schools in New York,they’re going to be studied and talked about their entire lives as they do live in the shadow of no towers, to use Art Spiegelman’s book name.
They were just old enough to understand; and young enough to be tormented. Kids are resilent; they picked up and went on as we all did. But they were cheated of an innonce we Americans claim to be our birthright. I remember how discombulated I was at ten to fifteen; I can’t pretend to understand the extra layer that was added to their hormonal hell.
James and Frank were waiting for us downstairs. Lucia and I talked about the cab ride to the school, and Frank and I began talking about cab rides from hell. Frank said that there are about 20 places every cab driver should know.
Once when I lived on the East Side, I asked a cab driver to take me to the Empire State Building; the cab was on Fifth Avenue which goes downtown. The cab driver pretended not to hear me as he took a street going east so that we would go to Madison Avenue which goes the wrong way.
Actually he said that it was his first day and he spoke no English. But he said that in perfect English. When I told that to Frank, his eyes looked even sadder and older than they had looked a minute before:
“Yep, one of the 20 places.”
Shit, I thought, how could I be so unfeeling? How could I forget even for a second what he had lived through?
“Right, eighteen others still standing.”
I don’t know how to describe the look we gave each other; it’s a look that New Yorkers have perfected in the past four years. One that combines melancholy, sadness, wistfullness and solidarity. Nobody talks about 9/11, the day, often. It’s in our blood, along with the smoke that did travel uptown to my apartment.
9/11 was something that happened; at times it feels unreal as if we had all been characters in a made for TV movie; other times it’s forgotten because life really does go on. But there are times, and Saturday night was one of them when it becomes fresh all over again.
Frank believes that the painting was unhealthy; that too much expressing or too much talking is going to keep the 9/11 kids from getting over it. I dont know Frank well, but I have known him much of my life. He was always a joyful person with smiling eyes; his eyes turn down now, even his smile seemed sad. Looking at the painting must have hurt him something fierce.
Then we talked about the live models the kids drew from, and a story that Nanny had told us the night before at Lucia’s birthday party. She used to work nights, and would take the subway home at eleven. One night a tall muscular Black man had come on the subway dressed only in a shirt. Everybody pretended not to look, but one woman screamed out:
“I thought his wee-wee would be white.”
That’s New York: From 9/11 to wee-wee’s in one second flat. Damn I love this city. Love it, yet dream of the day I can walk away. Doesn’t make sense; nothing does anymore.