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Miracle on Eighth Street MAG
Even in the farthest reaches of my mind, not one disappointing memory of my childhood lingered. My mind’s eye never failed to conjure up a blissful scene of me romping in a playground, jumping on a springy mattress or watching a little wooden boy with a long nose on TV. This pleasant nostalgia often made me wonder when I had crossed a point of no return into a world of regrets and worry.
Last Saturday morning, peering at the New Jersey Turnpike, thoughts of visiting the old fairyland coursed through my mind, along with how I wouldn’t be able to separate my sticky skin from the seat when we arrived in Hoboken.
“Mom! When are we gonna get a new car?” I asked, scrunching over for the nonexistent cold air from the air conditioner.
“When money starts growing on trees,” my mother replied. Dad delved into the technicalities of automobiles and air conditioners. This lecture, combined with the suffocating heat and the fact that my dear mother was perfectly cool despite my feeling like melting rubber, made the ride almost unbearable.
“I hate being poor. What’s next – food stamps?” I ranted, not heeding the annoyance on my mother’s face. For a moment, it looked as if she would say something, but she just started cleaning the dashboard with a tissue. What’s the use, I thought. Nothing could make this piece of junk look less like trash. But I didn’t make my thoughts known, lest there would be another war between Mrs. Deng and Miss Jia. So, in what felt like an eternity, but was probably only 15 minutes, we arrived in …
“What the –” I blinked my sweat-soaked eyelids and made a feeble attempt to process the scene. “Look, it’s our old house. Remember that nice Indian girl next door? What was her name … Patel. Remember? She used to baby-sit you,” my mother asked. I did, but could not remember, nor accept, what met my eyes. The sidewalks were cracked and on the verge of crumbling, and Stone Age apartment houses lined the street. Our clunky Isuzu turned onto 8th street; the street sign looked as if it had barely survived a hurricane.
“This is Hoboken?” I asked in disbelief.
“You don’t remember your hometown? Did you know this was Frank Sinatra’s hometown?” my not-a-Sinatra-fan mother asked with her subtle yet discernible Chinese accent. So these were the origins of the Jia immigrants.
“153 8th Street!” my jubilant father announced. It was frightening to look at the decrepit two-story apartment house with a big crack down the front window. The window revealed nothing of the innards; yellowing newspaper was taped haphazardly inside. This was no treasure chest full of toys. The only attempt at decoration was a little flower pot, out of which sprang a dandelion.
As we parked, I wondered if anyone still lived here. Then the front door was thrust open and a little girl, who couldn’t have been much older than I was when I lived there, came pouncing out. She slammed the door behind her, and I wondered how the old portal could survive the impact.
While my parents visited old friends, I focused my attentions on the little girl and tried to find a little angel underneath the filth and baggy hand-me-downs. I found her playing with a naked and arm-free Barbie doll as dirty as its owner.
She squinted at me with curious, dark eyes and, for a flickering moment, I thought I caught a glimpse of another little girl I once knew.
“Hi, what’s your name?” the girl asked, pronouncing every syllable in that drawn out way kids have. “I’m Princess Emily and this is Princess Rita.” She waved the tattered royal doll in my face.
“Hello, Princess Emily and Rita,” I said, stooping down, “I’m just plain old Karen. What are you and Rita playing?” I inquired. I was anticipating some make-believe game, but to my surprise, Emily was sincere in her claim to royalty and prestige. Could it be that this poor little girl was incapable of seeing the wretchedness that surrounded her?
“We’re going to play at Cinderella’s house. You wanna play too?” Without waiting for a reply, Her Highness grabbed my wrist and led me into her royal abode.
I was home. Not the home with the stream, garages, Sony entertainment system and Jacuzzi, but the one with the makeshift eating area, the cramped bedrooms rented out to various immigrant families and one tiny bathroom. We went past an old woman with a malodorous stew on the rickety stove, past the man fixing the light bulb on a dangling wire, past the narrow hallway and knocked on Cinderella’s door.
“Hello? Is anybody home? I wanna play with Cinderella,” Emily declared. Cinderella, or a fair-voiced Emily, replied, “Come in, Princess Emily.” We did, and I couldn’t believe it. This wasn’t only the room Emily shared with her mother, this was the room I lived in eight years ago! To the right still stood the bunkbed my father had made for me. The white paint was cracked, but I was Princess Karen and this bed was my throne. Suddenly, I didn’t see the shabbiness; the bunkbed was a vessel on which I could climb and watch the world below.
Emily pretended to be Cinderella and recited her plight with her evil stepmother and stepsisters as I sat on the floor, not caring about the dirt, and listened. When Her Highness began to fuse Cinderella with the Little Mermaid, I decided it was time to find my parents. “Bye-bye, Princess Emily, I have to go. It was a treat meeting you. I hope to see you again some time. Okay?” I said.
“Okay,” Emily replied.
I walked briskly into the hallway to the bathroom. The door was ajar; there wasn’t much to see, just an olive green toilet, a grimy bathtub and a sink. While washing my hands, I glanced at the mirror and saw the little girl who used to stand on a stool to reach the sink. The face in the mirror smiled.
On my way out, I passed the old cook with the magic potion, the butler polishing the chandelier and the royal subjects convened in the great hall. I made my royal exit just in time to find my parents walking toward the Isuzu pumpkin coach. I marveled at the beautiful veil that had colored everything with a child’s fantasy.
“So, people are still living in the old place?” asked my father.
“Yep. And they’re really nice. Kind of reminds me of us back in those days.”
“Wow, time sure goes fast, doesn’t it?” remarked my father.
“Yep,” I replied, and lay back against the cushioned seats to enjoy the breezy trip home.