One summer day when I was about 11 or 12 Dad brought me with him to his showroom in Manhattan. I had been to New York many times before, but the previous trips had been family affairs, to see a Broadway show, go to a museum, or visit relatives. This time would be different; this time it would be just the two of us.
I had been looking forward to this day for weeks, relishing the opportunity to spend some alone-time with Dad. I imagined having a serious heart-to-heart on the two-hour train ride from New Haven to New York, but as soon as the train pulled out of Union Station he snapped open the Times. By the time we hit Bridgeport, a half-hour down the line, he was snoring like a steam engine, leaving me to admire the scenery. He didn’t wake up until the train whooshed into the Park Avenue tunnel at East 97th street, his eyes popping open as if they were wired to an electronic timer.
The train rolled to a halt at Grand Central with a gentle thud. After a momentary pause, the doors flew open and the battalion of briefcase-armed men, and a handful of women, surged out. Dad grabbed my hand as we joined the stampede down the narrow, dimly lit platform. As we emerged into the cavernous maw of the central lobby, I was momentarily blinded by the shards of light streaming through the arched windows in the vaulted ceiling.
Dad tightened his grip as we wove through the crush of commuters scurrying in all directions. Random snippets of conversations bounced off the marble walls, piercing the din. We made our way to the Times Square shuttle and joined a long line of people waiting to buy tokens at the booth. At the front of the line, Dad slipped a bill through a narrow opening under the grille and a hand with rubber-tipped fingers pushed back a stack of tokens.
We came to ground at Seventh Avenue and 40th Street amid a cacophony of blaring horns, squealing brakes, and barking street vendors. Shafts of sunlight bounced off the glass and steel facades of the buildings. I held Dad’s hand tight as he strode south toward the Garment District.
Everything about New York was bigger, faster, louder, messier. Brown-skinned men rolled racks of plastic-covered garments and carts with long rolls of fabric through the streets, singing and cursing as they dodged cars and pedestrians. Tall, skinny women in high heels shimmied down the sidewalk, alongside harried men in rumpled suits. The frenzy of activity was both exhilarating and frightening, so different from the sedate suburban world I was accustomed to.
Dad was different, too. He nimbly navigated the crowded sidewalks, walking with a confidence and purpose I had rarely seen before. Rather than shrinking from the chaos around him he seemed to grow bigger and more self-assured.
This was not the meek, acquiescent figure I was familiar with. At home my mother ruled with unchallenged supremacy, but here in the Big City, outside her force field, Dad was in command. This was his domain, and he clearly relished it.
Photo of Robert Cooper, Garment District, New York, ca 1970. By Peter Kupfer