Traffic on the FDR

By OLIVE AMDUR

FDR“Places remember what people forget.”
Richard Powers 

Instead of speaking, we eat peanuts in the Holland Tunnel: the unshelled, lightly roasted kind from the bulk section of our grocery store. With one hand on the steering wheel, my father takes handfuls from the top, since all the salt falls to the bottom, and my mother digs for those. Outside, the tunnel tiles blur as our Subaru speeds beneath the river and all the buried foundations of New York. 

When I was little, I liked sitting in the middle of the backseat, centered between my parents. I watched the world through their windshield, balanced. But I sit on the right side now, stretching to reach the bag of peanuts between them, looking through my side window in the dim light, and feeling in the car the heaviness of our unusual, anticipatory silence. Then the road out of the tunnel turns a bend by Battery Park City and we are suddenly above ground.

At night, the FDR Drive lights up from below, pale and glowing all the way north. I’ve spent lots of nights looking out at the skyline from the Brooklyn waterfront, but I know it best, now, by day, when it’s the city’s most hated road, with deep divots in the asphalt and perpetual traffic. 

This afternoon, though, the road is strangely clear and we speed along the river. I press my head against the cool window glass and let the city fly by. 

There are pieces of all three of us—my mother, father, and me—held and buried in the places we pass on this highway. There is my high school building at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge, with a view of the water from the fourth-floor library where I made my closest friends and first fell in love. Further uptown are the orderly brick buildings of Stuyvesant Town, where my mother spent her high school weekends wandering the spiraled courtyards. Just before our exit is the United Nations building, stately in the sun, where my dad commuted every day for thirty years. I loved visiting him because from the high office all the cars and buses on the FDR looked toy-like so far below. All the way uptown we are steeped in memory.

Parking the car in one of the smoky garages on 80th street, I find myself wishing the drive had taken longer—that I had more time to prepare—and then feel guilty for that wish. We walk the few blocks and are back to the present: standing three in a row in the visitors line at Weill Cornell Medical Center. 

 

My grandfather has been in a room on the 14th floor for three weeks now. Now that staff members are vaccinated, visitors are allowed, and I am grateful for this timing. There’s usually a one-person limit, but because he’s so close to full hospice and to being gone we three are allowed to break the rules. I feel grateful for this, too, standing by the information desk while they print our name tags, knowing I couldn’t do this on my own. 

We take the elevator up, and the floor is so bright and white when we step out it looks the way heaven does in movies. It is quieter than I remember hospitals being, and the light that streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows is made sterile by this space—lonely and cold. My mother leads us down the hall.

The curtains are drawn against the city and its sunlight in the dark room where my grandfather lies, frailer than I have ever seen him, wearing a thin puffer vest over a thinner button-down shirt because he refused the hospital gown. He turns his head slightly when we walk in and every movement looks effortful. Standing by the door, I feel the strength of my body acutely. 

By the base of the bed, my uncle rubs his father’s feet, layered in two pairs of those thick hospital socks with the rubber beads to prevent slipping, even though he doesn’t walk anymore. My father once arrived home from a business trip with a bundle of airplane socks like that. I put them on and ran around, laughing, not slipping, on our wooden floors. 

There is a part of me that wants to run like that now—away down the hall and out of the building into the unsterile sunlight. 

We speak and look at him like he knows who we are, though I am unconvinced. The last time I spent time with him was a little over a year ago, for dinner on Christmas Eve in 2019, before my second semester of college and just before the pandemic. We sat across from one another at a narrow table in a cozy restaurant downtown, and he told stories over risotto and wine: about the Korean War, about trips to Vermont with my mother and her step-siblings, about being chased away from a party by Norman Mailer. That’s the one I remember best; there was laughter in his face while he told it, as if he knew it was impressive and that I was just the one to impress. 

Now we think he may have begun missing things long before that dinner: taking the wrong heart medications, forgetting to cook meals, visiting the doctor too often. But he convinced us for a long time things were normal. Thinking back, I noticed his secretiveness, his mistrust, the way he’d give me memberships to the same museums on four different holidays each year. But so many of his memories, too, are held and buried in his old neighborhood by the FDR—above the UN and below the hospital—that he kept it together there. Steeped in familiar routines and pretending to be fine, he stayed until he couldn’t anymore. 

We pull our chairs towards him to say what will wind up being our goodbyes: what my father and I know rationally in the moment might be our goodbyes but don’t feel the weight of until later. My father holds my grandfather’s hand, the skin drawn and thin across his knuckles.

When my parents met, forty years ago, my grandfather was larger than life and glamorous like the city on its best days. He threw parties in his apartment, toasted with expensive champagne and rich food, commanded a room and everyone in it. He was generous and good-hearted and complicated; he was there when my parents fell in love, when I was born, when our family took shape. My father tells him all this, sitting there: what a force of love, life, culture, passion and spoiling he has been. 

There are glimpses of this force, still, like the afternoon a few days later, when my mother gets home from the hospital and tells us her father has invited all his closest friends to a bereavement party in his hospital room. But these are rare. 

My hands are clasped together and my eyes focused on the lobby visible through his door, the sliver of bright white light. I don’t know whether or not he hears what my father is saying until he speaks, and I see in the way his fingers flex he is pressing back. He says he is proud of the way my father has shaped our family, our lives, and built a home here. He says he has so many good, sweet memories. My father stands. 

I pull my chair in, take his hand, and can’t say anything. I look at him, there, and remember him tall in the seat at the head of the table at the Peking Duck House in midtown on holidays. I remember him at Cafe Un Deux Troix in the Theater District and in the front row on the balcony of every Broadway theater he had time to take me to. I remember him uptown and downtown, sturdy and strong and filled with energy for the beautiful. I think, for the first time, that when I was little, still wanting to sit between my parents in our backseat, he was the city to me. 

I know it’s okay that I can’t speak. Of the things we’ve shared over the years, more of them are smiles, dinners, musicals, theater, music, art, and quiet moments of shared appreciation than words. And this is the way we love each other. I trust New York to hold those memories, and carry that love. 

His head begins to tilt down because he’s tired and everything remains effortful, and I step into the hall, my parents close behind. I cry into my father’s chest, which is full and solid in a way I didn’t know I needed, and my mother rubs my back. Then a nurse brings me a box of tissues, quietly passing them to my father, and my mother steps back into the room. My father takes me to the wide window.  

We look out over the East River and across to Queens, then south all the way down the FDR Drive and back to Brooklyn. I hear the tears catch in his throat while he points to buildings and boats on the dark water. It’s one of the first days of spring, near the end of the month when the cherry blossoms bloom and stain the sidewalks with bright pink petals. The sky is blue and cloudless and the sun shines, finally warm enough that we leave the house with only sweaters. We laugh because it is so beautiful, obnoxiously beautiful, and the city so vivid, glassy, and filled with life.

There is a card I keep on my desk, which my grandfather wrote for the first birthday I spent away at college: my eighteenth. It is simple and white, with an inky hummingbird painted on the front. Beneath the bird, in his script, it says, Olive in full flight. On the fourteenth floor of the hospital, high above the city—all its music, art, and energy—I feel like I am flying, and he gave me that. 

 

My mother stays at the hospital through the afternoon, sitting next to my uncle while my grandfather sleeps, and my father and I pick the car up from the stifling basement garage. I sit in the front seat, next to him, and the stale air still smells like peanuts.

I remember, in the car, the way the hospice room smelled just like this when my grandmother—my father’s mother—died. It was a similar day: cherry blossom season, implausibly pink. Dad and I had just returned from a walk with a pack of Reese’s cups from the vending machine, and we all held hands by the bed, surrounded by chocolate and peanut butter air. I sit with this as we pull towards a downtown lane, and with my sadness. And I hope for that sort of sweetness in my grandfather’s last moments, though that won’t turn out to be the case. 

There’s traffic going south. We stop at a red light next to a white pick-up truck with music blasting through its open windows, vibrating the concrete below. It’s one of those sixties rock songs everyone knows the lyrics to—a singer with a throaty voice and a catchy beat. The man at the steering wheel is singing along, dancing in his seat, daring every driver at the stoplight to dance with him. I turn to my father, who looks ahead but taps his hand on the wheel, to the beat. There isn’t room for quiet grief here, on this road, in this city.

Then, during the song’s trumpet solo, the driver reaches for the seat next to him and pulls out a gold-painted plastic trumpet. We begin moving down the avenue again, slowly, and he pretends to play the trumpet for the whole block, steering with his other hand. It is one of those unbelievable things I think might only happen on a crowded downtown avenue in New York. We laugh. 

And on that avenue, the construction sounds and chatter from outdoor restaurants barely audible under the music just one car over, it feels to me like the streets are singing for my granddad, composing a rhythm forceful enough to unearth the past held in them and loud enough to break the silence on the 14th floor. 

I have the thought, as I prepare for grief and figure out where to hold all the loss to come, that I love this city. 

 

Olive Amdur is an editorial assistant at The Common.

Traffic on the FDR

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