A Quantum of Solitude

On Douglas and 128th

On Douglas and 128th

The commute home when I lived in New York often took 20 to 30 minutes. I googled this and the distance was 4 miles. Google gives an estimate of 10 minutes, but doesn’t take into account rush hour and the bottle neck presented by the Henry Hudson Highway at that spot where everybody leaving Manhattan for New Jersey or Westchester got corralled into two lane off ramps that spiraled up the limestone cliffs. These cliffs famously collapsed several years ago, making traffic even worse. There were days when I could walk home faster. It now takes me about twenty five minutes to go 19 miles to and from work in moderate traffic, and even faster without it. Fact is, I savor this half hour of solitude. It is the same meditative loneliness that I enjoy about a round of golf spent alone.

My car is my coccoon, my space capsule, and my suit of armor. Men need time to not talk and decompress. The first thing I remember about marriage is coming home after a long day at work (we married the day after I graduated from medical school), and my beautiful, new wife wanted to talk. She would exposit about her day, about the people at work, and all the things we had to fix or do that week. Wow -I thought -that’s a lot of vocalization -I’d better tune in or I’m in big trouble. Sometimes I walked home slowly to try to catch the ten odd minutes of complete sensory deprivation -this is a New Yorker’s trick that has made the iPod a commercial success. You put on the earbuds, turn on something loud enough to blank out the street noise, put on the shades, and walk fast.

All I wanted to do was go into the bathroom, turn out the lights, and breathe deeply. I fantasized about having one of those dark dens that you saw on the movies and TV shows from the fifties and sixties where dads go off to smoke a pipe and not be bothered. My wife who was the middle daughter between two sisters, and a much younger brother, and parents who both worked, grew up not knowing the inner workings of men, and still thinks that my need to decompress in silence an antisocial behavior indicative of some deep flaw or an undiagnosed childhood psychopathology.

We were watching a Superman movie once -the ones with Steve Reeves who was Superman, and he went to his Fortress of Solitude -and I turned to my wife and said, “That’s it! You see -even Superman needs to decompress.” That got me the chinky-eyed (I can say that) rebuke that only wives, mothers, and salty scrub nurses can give. Being the marrying kind means you tuck your tail and smile if you know what’s good for you.

My son, G, now faces some of this ceaseless request for progress reports. When he arrives off the school bus, dragging his backpack, hungry, and fried in the brain, the first thing my wife says is, “What’d you do at school (work) today?” He looks up at her with his thousand yard stare, shrugs, and says, “Nothing.” Bad answer, but for a six year old, and completely truthful and honest one.

I remember as a child that my father, and my grandfather before him, got a lot of space in the afternoons and evenings. My grandfather particularly was treated with respect and a touch of fear. I’m not advocating a return to those days, but it isn’t without a twee bit of envy that I watch Mad Men, and see a world ruled by men, their constant need for decompression, and the ease in which they were able to get it.