back to the Black Table

 My family is in town. I can tell my family is in town because I’m drenched in my own sweat, I’ve yelled at the cat five times in the last 20 minutes and I’m so tired I can’t find the blasted “G” button on this frijjing computer.

My family hates New York. I do not mean that they are charmingly adrift in this unfamiliar urban world, the innocents abroad. I mean they despise it, the way cats despise dogs, the way the Goldman family despises O.J., the way vampires despise sunlight.

This is the Leitches’ second trip to New York. The first was two years ago, during the height of the dotcom boom, back when I was a surreal (and, of course, completely fake) success story making too much money to pretend to edit a Website that none of my bosses even knew existed. Life was so different then. I made about three times as much money then as I do know, and I lived that way. We went out drinking every night, stayed in fancy hotels, took cabs four blocks uptown and bought rounds of drinks for complete strangers simply because we thought they might, possibly, perhaps, be from somewhere near the Midwest, maybe Nevada.

I grew up in a small town, 16,000 people, tops, and my family has lived there for more than 50 years. It is all that they know, and all they really care to. The 2000 Leitch family visit – my parents and my sister, exactly 4 1/2 years younger than me – was our first real family vacation, just the four of us, alone together, for a week, in nearly six years. My family has always gotten along very well; we are not a dysfunctional clan full of hidden secrets and buried resentments. But after about 36 hours in New York City, we were dangerously close to killing one another.

I don’t remember the circumstances of it, but on day three of that trip, the Leitches went to Shea Stadium to see the Cardinals play (and lose to) the Mets. It started out fine. We joked that my nose-ring-wearing, armpit-hair-bearing, Ani DiFranco- and Phish-loving sister should find a good Christian guy like the Cardinals’ J.D. Drew, and we drank seven-dollar lukewarm ballpark beer. Then the game ended, and we hopped on the subway. It was packed, and soul-crushingly hot. My sister started complaining, I snapped at her, my dad snapped at me, my mom snapped at my dad, and we were off. To try to lighten the mood, I convinced them to stop by a Chevy’s restaurant in Times Square for a margarita.

All hell broke loose. My sister started yelling, my dad started yelling, my mom started crying, and I hid under the table. I don’t even recollect what it was about. It was like the seedy, nasty, angry underbelly of New York had slipped under our skin, and everything each of us did made us want to strangle everyone else. My sister eventually stomped off, then came back to yell at us some more. My mom (like her son, a non-conflict-oriented person) left the table and stood on Eighth Avenue, trying not to weep as her family disintegrated around her. We stayed in the bar and screamed at one another while the waiters kept their distance. Not content to let my mother escape the chaos, we took it to the street, where the Leitches yelled and hollered insults at each other as the respectable denizens of the Port Authority passed by and gaped. (That’s how serious our fight was. New Yorkers took notice.)

It was awful. Everyone’s viscous, holding nothing back. I’m trying to keep peace, pausing only to make war. A public Leitch family meltdown, with the wretched city bearing full witness, right there on the street. Right about the time I started to worry if any of us had a gun, I noticed someone walking past us. While my sister was cursing, I stopped her, and everyone else.

“Hey, guys, check it out. It’s J.D. Drew.” It was. He and two Cardinals teammates were passing by. We all halted, looked at him, then each other, and did a collective “Well, I’ll be darned.” And then the screaming commenced again.

My family left two days early. Until today, they had not returned. New York truly brought out the worst in all of us; I did not expect them to return.

And now they’re back. It’s funny, really. The initial intent of their visit was to see my uncles’ new apartment in Philadelphia, and to catch a couple of Cardinals-Phillies games at Veterans Stadium. They arrived Friday, and we drank and were merry. We sat in the swelter for Saturday’s game, then went home and drank some more. Sunday was another game of Leitch Liquefy, this time in the 100-plus-degree upper tier. We laughed and cheered and smiled and bonded.

Originally, this was all the visit was to be. They’d head back after the game, and I’d go back to New York, and none would be any the poorer. But then, about a month ago, while going over details for the trip, my dad paused.

“You know, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Ground Zero.” (I love the way my father said that term like he invented it.) Ignoring the inherent crassness of treating the site of a nightmare made alive as some sort of tourist attraction, I was ecstatic; I never thought they’d want to come back. Much has changed in two years, and I couldn’t wait to show them how far I’d come. Whatever got them here was fine with me. So it was. After the game, we were to drive back to New York, and they’d spend the night at my place before heading downtown Monday morning.

I don’t know what I was thinking, honestly.

What was a glorious, celebratory Leitch reunion turned sour fast. It’s like they could smell New York coming; as soon as we waited through traffic to enter the George Washington Bridge, Dad started yelling at Mom, which made my sister yell at him, which made me yell at her, which made people behind us start honking because we were sitting in the middle of the highway. By the time we made it into the city, Dad was grousing about the lack of parking spaces and the smell, my sister was screeching about how she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live here, and my Mom was trying to get them to relax, which just made them be grouchy to her.

And, oh yes, the heat. After two days at the ballpark, we are all brutally sunburned. (I look like a butch Sacagawea.) New York, and most of the East Coast, has been stricken with a historic heat wave. I have the greatest apartment, and I couldn’t wait to show it off to them. (My old apartment was the size of a cell phone case, only with worse ventilation.) But I hadn’t accounted for the heat. It is so hot. And we do not have air conditioning. We have a fan, powered by a paraplegic gerbil.

The heat only added to our dour nature. We ended up ordering food delivered to the air conditioned bar downstairs, while Dad grumbled about the bartender and the loud music, and my sister yelled at him for not being nicer to my mother, and my mother hollered at me for not being better organized. And then we decided to go to bed. With our sunburns. In the apartment with no air conditioning on the hottest New York City night of the year.

I write this while my parents try to sleep. My sister just came out and asked if we had ice, or if “they don’t have ice in this godforsaken city.” My roommates are looking on helplessly as my family melts down, again.

It is as if New York City is lemon juice to my family’s invisible ink. All that is ugly and underneath, typically unseen, emerges when the combustible elements are introduced.

They go back tomorrow. I will miss them. I cannot wait to see them over Christmas. But next time ... we’re staying in Philadelphia. Even if they do boo J.D. Drew there.



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