When I was a teenager, West 14th St. was at the edge of an outlaw zone my boyfriend and I would skirt gingerly after playing pinball at an arcade in the Village. It was a dirty, sleazy street where you could bump into drug dealers or people who, without irony, might after dark wear one of the rainbow-colored Afro wigs that were sold at storefronts up and down the block. The neighborhood is a lot cleaner these days, although you can still find suspiciously discounted gold watches among the Starbucks and luxury condos. Twice a week I cross 14th and 6th on my way to the cheapest gym in the city, where steroided bodybuilders and skinny grandmothers alike pump iron 24 hours a day. I run past the newsstand and look downtown at the Jefferson Market Library clock to see how late I am, and remember that same view 25 years ago as I raced to the subway with my boyfriend in order to get back to Queens before dinner. But there used to be two tall swaths of silver behind the clock tower; now it's just empty sky. I get angry at the blank air that leaches the sweetness from my nostalgia. I want to be able to remember the past without intrusion of the present.
While standing in front of the congregation on Purim with a life-sized chicken as my gabbai, I thought about a time when I was young and ignorant enough about who or what had left, was missing, or might never return, to be able to focus on nothing but play. I had a clearer view, back then, of emotions--love, fear, wonder--as they floated, unencumbered, to the surface. When I chant, especially on Purim, I think I reclaim some of those moments, and for a little while can feel as free and open as a child.
(To be continued.)