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The Arch Up Ahead

“WASHINGTON SQUARE IS MY PARK”: Author Nancy Davidoff Kelton, above, poses with the park’s famous Arch. Photo by Jonathan Zich.

The Arch Up Ahead (published in WestView News-April issue)

Dear Blog Readers: I wrote this before the Pandemic. Stay well. xxx Nancy

By Nancy Davidoff Kelton

In 1960, on my third New York trip from Buffalo, I went to Washington Square Park to see beatniks. My parents’ excitement explaining their unconventional clothing, values, and Greenwich Village homes aroused mine.

“See that arch up ahead,” my father said, ten blocks away on the bus. “That’s where we’re going.”

Growing up in a two-story house with a driveway, garage, backyard, swing set and two mulberry trees on the front lawn, I was surprised people lived in the tall buildings lining lower Fifth Avenue, but Washington Square looked like our Delaware Park and every other park I had visited. People walked and talked.

Nothing and no one seemed different until a disheveled man approached us, asking for money. Frightened, my father grabbed my hand, hurrying to leave, but stopping at tables where men played chess. Watching their moves, Dad’s eyes brightened. “The unwashed members of society,” he said, appearing eager to join them. He loved chess, had no regular game and only played at the fancy eating club where my wealthy aunt belonged when we were her guests.

Walking along MacDougal Street, we still did not see anyone wearing black turtlenecks. At a Howard Johnson’s on Sixth Avenue near Eighth Street, a man and woman walked in, laughing and kissing. They sat at the next table. He was white. She was black. The woman, seeing me stare, smiled and waved. My mother told them we were from Buffalo. The man said they lived nearby on Eleventh Street. Our sundaes came.

“Those are beatniks,” Dad said.

“Pretty wonderful,” added Mom. “We don’t get to see that in Howard Johnson’s on Delaware.”

Or in the mahogany game room at the club. In the cab back to the Hotel Taft, I glanced out the rear window. I couldn’t wait to tell my friend, Jane, or return.

My parents, reverse snobs, disapproved of doing things, as my mother would say, “by the book.” They showed me options and opened my eyes to a larger, more accepting world. Did they—did I—know me?

During early 1960s New York trips, we saw “The Fantasticks” twice and roamed through Washington Square and the surrounding streets. A college friend lived on lower Fifth Avenue. I visited during vacations.

In 1967, I transferred to NYU and lived in Rubin Hall on Tenth Street and Fifth Avenue. Alone my first day at Chock Full O Nuts on University Place across from NYU’s Main Building and diagonally across from the park, I asked the waitress for an ashtray. She brought me a little foil one. The man next to me said, “Ashtrays are a lot to ask for here.”

Flinching, I remembered the panhandler and Dad’s fear. Initiations. Newness. That’s it. That’s all. New Yorkers voice their opinions, thank goodness. I felt at home.

After classes and during those I cut, I sat on park benches, getting my real education. My chemistry lab partner explained chemistry and rolled us tight joints. We would laugh upon seeing our professor walk through. In class and in lab, he loved asking, “Is everything crystal clear?”

What studying I did, I did at NYU Law School with my law school boyfriend, who eventually became my husband. At night, we played frisbee in Washington Square. We said ‘no’ to the guys selling loose joints, mumbling, “Smoke, smoke.”

I sat with other mothers in the park playgrounds. When my marriage ended, one suggested I see my therapist twice a week. Another took off her sunglasses and showed me her black eye.

Until my early 60s, I taught writing in Main Building on the floor below the chem lab I almost blew up as a college junior. When my grandson was little, my present husband, Jonathan, and I took him to the playgrounds I had taken his mother.

For decades, I have been walking down Fifth Avenue through Washington Square to do errands. I walk laps around it as exercise, logging miles. On weekends, Jonathan and I watch the classical pianist at his baby grand, other musicians, and the acrobatic twins, Tic and Tac. Alone, I read and look around.

Chess players are at the tables. I never learned to play. Not everything is crystal clear, but Washington Square is my park. I am comfortable there and living in a tall building ten blocks from the arch.

Nancy Davidoff Kelton is the author of seven books and numerous essays that have been published in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, Parents, Writer’s Digest, AARP websites and elsewhere. On June 8, 2020 the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York will present the first staged reading of her play, Finding Mr. Rightstein, which she adapted from her memoir with the same title. She teaches writing workshops at the New School and Strand Bookstore.

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