Hope surged as we headed northbound, away from geographical Kansas and—I prayed—it’s collective and individual psychological implications. It was a venture calling for great humility; we had to become subatomic particles in order to escape the black hole we were leaving behind.
Humility breeds optimism, so we had assurance in loads. Still, it pained me to go. The heartland, like the heart, is sick and deceitful; it cannot be trusted. The heart is what kept us in Wichita for two long years and had I continued to follow it, the girls and I would still be some fifteen hundred miles behind, away from the world’s best city.
It was warm when we left, the nocturnal August wind contending the day superior to most; the promise of a new season with the approach of fall, the excitement of change in the air. I drove until we hit St. Louis, where I pulled over at Quick Trip for drinks, a bathroom break, and a call to the bank. “Good thing we’ve had them since I was a kid,” I commented to my daughters after convincing the teller over the phone to transfer funds to my checking account mistakenly deposited into my mother’s. “We” meant my parents, brothers and I. “I used to catch the city bus there and sneak out withdrawals.”
Withdrawing money from the bank was my first lesson in finance. Mom would walk me into First National and have me sign in cursive. We would leave holding hands, mom carrying a bill-filled bank bag. By kindergarten I could identify when a note was going home, as I could already read and write my name in script.
Five hundred dollar bills were still around back then, and counting them gave me a rush. But all I was really doing was counting them out; once out of the bank they no longer belonged to me. I could depend, however, on ones, fives, tens and maybe a couple of twenties as a perk to signing my name—crumbs. I did not see it that way then. Then I figured I’d negotiated a fee for using my name. In reality I was making it easy for my parents to misappropriate what was mine by way of my paternal grandfather. It did not take long for that account—one of many resources—to dwindle to nothing.
But I suppose I had my day.
We made it out of Missouri and into Gary, Indiana, stopping for gas at a run-down station with water puddles, mosquitos and broken down cars. “Girls, can you believe Michael Jackson was born and raised in this place?” The entire Jackson family? Just goes to show a person can achieve whatever they want, as long as they want it bad enough. Just takes hard work and focus.” I slapped a mosquito off my arm. “Even Janet was born here.” The girls looked around, disgusted. I grasped the opportunity to drive the point home, “Yep. There’s absolutely no excuse not to be successful.” To an Isley Brothers tune I pulled out and turned onto a side street where I noticed nearly every home looked abandoned. I drove until we ended up at a dead end next to a sprawling corn field. Stevie Wonder’s “Skeletons” kept the beat as I found my way back to the highway.
Night required rowdier music; I struggled to stay awake. By the time we made it to Ohio I was exhausted, pulling into the first gas station I saw. Nearby were many commercial trucks and two hotels. Equally unimpressive, I chose the hotel with less traffic. It was more opulent, friendly and clean than expected. The girls and I checked in for the night and hit the road around 1:00PM the next day.
Farmingdale, Illinois made our next pit, where we stopped at a gas station full of quirky gifts. I bought a shirt exactly like the one my oldest brother had gifted me several months prior: green with a picture of four Native Americans holding rifles and the words, “HOMELAND SECURITY” up top and “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492” at the bottom. The girls and I got back on the road, finally making it out of Illinois and into West Virginia, which we coasted through quickly before entering Pennsylvania.
Traveling through the Allgheny mountain tunnel, we traversed the Poconos on highway 78. It was a particularly long drive, but the route was scenic and the hills and mountains majestic. A few weeks later those mountains would smoke purple as we came out on the other side, heading back to Kansas to visit mom one last time. She was near her death bed by then and when I would call to speak to her on the phone, she would turn away her ear. A dear friend and publisher sent another advance so I could make the trip. It would be the last party; the rehabilitation center had a barbecue and concert that weekend, where mom got her wish: my brothers and I getting along.
But the timing of God.
The band played for as long as she stayed outside, and she was the last patient to be wheeled in. I laid my head on her shoulder for the encore, “What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong, my middle brother following my lead. True to form, she shut the party down.
Purple was mom’s favorite color and would be the selection for the flowers atop her sparkling white casket a few short weeks after. The lavender balloons let go following her entombment were reminiscent of the mountain smoke crossed before the last hurrah.
We were almost there. But instead of continuing straight to New York, I decided to detour to Pittsburgh so my daughters and I could visit Abby Lee’s dance studio, never mind Abby Lee had relocated to Los Angeles at the time to film on the west coast. There was one other car in the parking lot when I pulled in and I thought we might walk in behind them, but they never got out. After some hesitation, the girls and I walked toward the building. Halfway through the parking lot the other family opened their doors and asked if the girls were members.
“No, we’re just here to visit,” I replied.
“Us, too,” the brown-haired woman responded.
“Well, are they open?” I asked.
“Oh, we’re not sure,” she answered.
I peered into the front windows of the studio before checking the door. It was unlocked. Another family pulled up and joined us in an unofficial Abby Lee Studios tour. It was the closest the girls had gotten to show business since leaving New York.
We continued toward New Jersey, the traffic in Pennsylvania busy. By nightfall we advanced to New York, entering like thieves in the night, unsure where we would sleep but relishing in the thought of having our own place for the first time in over two years, be it borrowed by hope or earned by faith.
We had returned. After going to Kansas following the death of my father and being stuck for two years, the word on the streets was we wouldn’t make it back.
But the streets lie.
Having exhausted every contemporary ode to the best city in the world, Frank Sinatra serenaded us through the toll booth and into our official arrival, which was marked by lit skyscrapers. From the highway, the buildings looked like pointy grand objects erupting from the ground. To me the buildings represented eight million dreams, and I wanted at least one of them.
Many times we’d listen to Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” while riding around Wichita. My firstborn had won the CD while working at Target, where she’d obtained the most customer credit card applications on a particular shift. It was she who helped propel us back to New York. Each pay day, she handed over her entire check to me with the exception of twenty dollars. She’d had a plan for her money that I destroyed: piano lessons. Soon she would sit above me atop her reward, a shelter bed. A tale of two teenagers: while Taylor Swift’s dad transferred his cushiony Merrill Lynch job to Nashville so his daughter could pursue her dream, I was exposing my daughters to all the familial pathologies I’d run away from myself. Montage of a Dream Deferred.
But Taylor Swift isn’t the type of singer you allow to serenade you into the best city on the planet. So Frank Sinatra it was. I drove straight to west 57th street and parked.
My three daughters and I walked the streets of midtown west, incessantly giggling, grabbing a bite to eat and celebrating what we considered a marvelous victory.
“I can’t believe we made it!” exclaimed the youngest.
“I missed the pizza,” said the oldest.
“Won’t He do it?” I asked.
“Sure will,” the middle child affirmed.
Our four distinct personalities synchronized with one another as we repeatedly expressed our disbelief at the fact we were actually here.
My plan was to park the car and go to the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (P.A.T.H.) intake center, the first step for any family with children applying for shelter. I’ve never had a visit to a social service agency that did not entail a lengthy standby, so I was in no rush to get there. It was one of those perfect weather nights where the gentle breeze keeps you out late. The New York City winds caressed me; we didn’t have a place to live but it felt like we’d finally gotten home. We strolled along the sidewalks and I mentally prepared myself for the interminable wait and battle for resources I knew we would face, enjoying our fill of the city before loading back into our vehicle and driving to our next destination.
©2022 Margery Hannah