The 1964 New York World’s Fair took place in a newly constructed park in the Flushing Meadows area of Queens. Years later, I learned that the site was once known as the Corona Ash Dumps, depicted as “the valley of ashes” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. When I was growing up, my family never went anywhere: no vacations, no day trips, none of the adventures that “normal” families have. So when I was eight years old, and my parents told us they were taking us to the World’s Fair, I became so excited that even knowing we were going to a dump would not have upset me.
My parents never drove outside of Connecticut, so they spent weeks preparing for the trip in our 1956 Plymouth Fury. Not even having a rudimentary atlas, we had to rely on the somewhat-conflicting directions of the neighbors who had visited the World’s Fair earlier.
“We have to turn at the Whitestone Bridge,” my parents repeated a dozen times during the week before the trip.
“The Whitestone Bridge,” my brother and I echoed.
We set off early Tuesday morning on a journey that was supposed to take an hour and a half. It was clear after driving for more two hours that we were lost. I had seen several signs for the bridge, surprised that the name wasn’t spelled “White Stone.” I wished that I had spoken up when my dad drove past them, but he was so touchy whenever he was behind the wheel that I never wanted to disturb him.
We exited the highway and found ourselves in a gritty part of the Bronx on a wide street dotted with a few shabby stores, the curbsides littered with newspapers and broken bottles. Rows of dilapidated apartment buildings, all a harsh, faded gray color, towered over every block, reminding me of pictures of mothballed battleships from history books. I gazed up at the billowing white bedding hanging from the makeshift clotheslines on the top floors, and in my head they became sails, navigating vessels of discovery. Just like our journey to the 1964 World’s Fair.
Stopped at a traffic light, we saw a man starting to cross the street. Dad rolled down his window and yelled, “Hey, buddy.”
The man was dressed in stained khakis, a torn white shirt, and a soiled raincoat. I noticed oil spots on the sleeves of the coat and thought he must have slept under a car. I can still see his coarse, unshaven face, sprinkled with white, an odd black smear on his cheek, and the filterless cigarette dangling from his peeling lips. I nicknamed the man “Smudge.”
“We missed the turn to the Whitestone Bridge,” my father explained. “Can you tell me how we get back there?”
Smudge stared blankly at first, then walked over to the car, tossing his butt on the ground. “Gimme a lift, and I’ll show you.”
Reluctantly my father agreed. Mom quickly got out of the car and climbed into the back seat with us, not wanting the man sitting next to her children.
“I know this city like the backa my hand,” Smudge bragged.
My dad drove forward, waiting patiently for the man to give him directions. Instead, Smudge rambled incessantly about how New York had been completely ruined by the coloreds, and why it wasn’t his fault that he hadn’t had a job in ten years. He told us about everything except where we should be going. My dad looked nervous.
My mother finally spoke up. “Are we getting close?” she asked.
But Smudge didn’t respond. By now, I was now convinced he was a murderer who preyed on lost families headed for the World’s Fair. From the crack between the front seats of our car, I could see his worn, stubby fingers with the blackened, hardbitten nails. I pictured the man strangling someone with those terrible hands. I watched him carefully, wondering if he suddenly hit my dad, how I would be able to get to the steering wheel so we wouldn’t crash.
“Pull the goddamned car over!” my mother finally shouted.
Obediently, Dad stopped the car. Smudge just stared at him.
“We can find our way from here,” my dad told Smudge, measuring his words carefully so as not to anger him.
I waited for the man to move, my hands visibly shaking. Slowly he climbed out of our car. He closed the door quietly and walked away, without threats or complaints or a thank you. We were left on another street corner in the Bronx with the battleships and the billowing sheets above us.
My dad didn’t say a word. He drove randomly until we finally found a gas station, and eventually, the Whitestone Bridge. We didn’t arrive at the fair until noon. But we had only come to see Michelangelo’s Pieta (because we were Catholic) and the “It’s a Small World” attraction (because we had the 45 rpm record of the song at home). My parents cared little about the cultural exhibits, and the Swiss Sky Ride cost extra, so that was off the list. We’d made no other plans because we never made plans. We didn’t know how. We spent the rest of the time just walking around, talking about when we should head home.
But we had gone somewhere. And we hadn’t been murdered in the Bronx.
Occasionally when I make the drive JFK Airport, I miss that same exit to the Whitestone Bridge. As I’m maneuvering my way out of the Bronx, I think about the man I disrespectfully nicknamed Smudge. I don’t think of him as a murderer anymore. Probably just a guy who had walked too many blocks. A man who needed a ride, and maybe, like me, a bit of time feeling like he was part of a normal family.
Don J. Rath is an M.F.A. candidate in the Creative Writing program at Queens University of Charlotte. A recently retired finance executive, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes short fiction and creative nonfiction.
This is the author’s first literary award.
This is the author’s first work to appear in print.
DECEMBER 15, 2019 / MUSEPAPER ESSAY PRIZE #40 / FEAR