Charlie on the Hudson (#286)

“‘Strain! ‘Strain, yes, I want ‘strain!”

We had promised Charlie that we would take the train to Jersey City, but not until 4pm and here he was asking already in the morning. In full worry mode about Charlie’s rising trouble with transitions, especially with two school-less weeks ahead of him, Jim and I had spent Saturday night strategizing.
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A pattern of anxiousness and head knocks on the wall within five minutes of waking prompted us to change Charlie’s medication schedule. Another pattern that we have observed is: Charlie is in the front yard, asks for the car, is requested to come inside, flops down on the floor. Jim and Charlie took off on their bikes just before 1pm; Charlie asked for “green car” on the way home, so Jim had him come into the backyard and, after we both explained “we have to work in the yard, then go to the recycling place, then go in the car to the train,” Charlie helped pick up some of the thousands of pinecones and dead twigs from the grass and put them into plastic bins. And then, onto the train to Newark and the PATH to Jersey City.

The PATH–the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Rapid-Transit System–passes over the Passaic River and through Harrison, where Jim’s Great Uncle Marty was the superintendent for many years, past mountains of shipping containers, alongside lovely rusting bridges of laticework steel (including the Skyway). Charlie turned his head left and right and I could see his eyes flickering back and forth to take in the industrial panorama of Jersey.
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We got off at the Grove Street station, and Jim, wanting to do some location scouting for his book led us down to Grand Street and then towards the Hudson River. Spotting a dog on a leash 100 feet away, Charlie stood behind Jim (who was trying to determine where the headquarters of a certain union were) and peered out, eyes big.

“The address has an odd number so it would have been…..there,” Jim said, pointing to where a warehouse-size Boys & Girls Club building stood. “So it’s a few blocks from City Hall……” “It’s just a dog,” I said. “Dog,” said Charlie.

We walked past Saint Peter’s Prep, which Jim’s father and uncle attended (and had Jim gone there, he would have been in the same class as Nathan Lane). Charlie wandered into the courtyard where the gym is and Jim noted which buildings would and would not have been there in his father’s era.

Both of Jim’s parents hail from northern new Jerseyl Hudson County is the most densely populated county in New Jersey. Jim’s book on the New Jersey/New York waterfront arises out of his family root’s in places like Hoboken where stevedores (likes the broken-down boxer, Terry Malloy, Marlon Brando portrays in On the Waterfront–Jim’s great-grand relatives–stood every morning in the shape-up hoping, praying, they would get a tab and get to work today.
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We made our way to downtown Jersey City which gleams with shiney office buildings and apartment buildings with a gorgeous view of lower Manhattan. We passed a memorial to 9/11, a steel girder twisted like a sixfold Möbius strip. Charlie ran to look at the waters of the Hudson and to puzzle over the apparatus mooring the platform for the ferry.

“You can see it all–the George Washington Bridge up there and then Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and the Verrazano Bridge,” said Jim, sweeping an arm north to south. “And that’s where I took the boat on September 12th.”


On the day after 9/11, Jim–along with several Saint Peter’s College students–had boarded a police boat at the very spot where the three of us were standing today, Charlie running to and from, me snapping photos with my cell phone and noting the Irish Hunger Memorial. The ruins of the WTC were smoking and ashes, shreds of paper weighting down the air. Jim was the fall 2001 Willl and Ariel Durant Chair of Humanities at Saint Peter’s College in St. Peter’s Hall on Kennedy Boulevard the day after. But he went to Jersey City and was walking around. When he heard about the boat, he called me. I said,

“Of course you have to go.”

Jim was wearing a blue dress shirt and black shoes that took in so much–stuff–even the fiercest toothbrush scrubbing could not render his shoes black again. Once he and the students got to the other side (wearing masks over their mouths and noses)—to lower Manhattan in ashes, flames, and ruin—they bucket-brigaded supplies for the cops and the firemen and the workers.
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“There’s a dock over by the Winter Garden,” Jim said this afternoon, to explain where the police boat had landed on the other side of the Hudson on September 12, 2001.

“Where’s the Statue of Liberty?” I asked.

“That building’s blocking it—there’s that great Colgate clock,” said Jim as Charlie stood on a bench for “piggyback Daddy!”

We walked west past shinining condos and then over broken glass, half-drunk Snapple bottles left beside a pay phone, and general garbage, till we were back at Grove Street and went to my favorite place for falafel and fragrant Middle Eastern coffee, Ibby’s. Charlie ate some of his dinner on the PATH train as I regarded the sleeping young woman beside him.

Zilari asked “how do you figure out when your kid is happy? What cues do you use to determine this?”

Would that I even knew how to begin to address this! These are questions that I must continue to work through as Charlie’s mother.
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I can say that these questions can apply to any parent, whether their child has autism or is non-autistic. The questions make me think about what I as a parent would like to pass on to my child, to Charlie, to my son who has autism.

And the answer is, some knowledge of his history. Of where he comes from, not only vis-à-vis Autismland, but as a boy of the 21st century whose ancestors hail from Ireland and from Southern China (Toishan County), from East Bay California and from north Jersey. Of his family with the understanding that, as an adult, he can take it or leave it.

My relatives of my generation live in Silicon Valley and its environs, not the urban Chinatowns my grandparents settled in; Jim’s generation couldn’t find Paulus Hook and explain what “rice pudding day” in Frank Hague‘s era was for the life of them. I am not saying that Charlie has to be able to do either; Charlie must, will, is finding his own interests and ways of being.

But it is my suspicion that Charlie cranes his neck to see the iron and steel passing by through the PATH train’s windows because it is in his blood, his heart, and history.

And his soul.

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Comments
One Response to “Charlie on the Hudson (#286)”
  1. Eileen says:

    I would say that Charlie is happy when he smiles that natural smile. Not because he was given a reinforcement. That one you describe when he calls for “Daddy’s blue blanket”, “mommy pink sirt”, when he calls the names of his therapists with a smile on his face, looking at his pictures on his computer and wearing that peaceful easy feeling you describe. I know from your reading Charlie is happy when at the Jersey Shore enjoying the ocean waves. I think as parents we can tell when our kids are happy or not. I know that you and Jim do everything you can for Charlie to assure that he is happy and living the best life he can. You are wonderful parents giving him so much and strategizing always to figure out how to avoid those not so happy moments.

    Thanks for sharing your day in good old Jersey City with us. You have inspired me to take the boys on a day trip to the Statue of Liberty one day soon.

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