Back in 76 i dropped out of school for a couple of years, hitchhiked around the country, worked some sucky jobs in Wisconsin and Arizona, spent some months in the woods in upstate New York and Colorado, even hustled some money playing foosball in college towns. But by 78 i was ready to go back to school, and i talked my way into university starting in January of 79.
I found a place to live in a house with 3 other guys in Ronkonkoma. One of their buddies had graduated a semester earlier; they were all on track to finish up in May and needed someone to fill out the house for a semester. So it was a good fit.
These guys were mostly from Staten Island, and had known each other in high school. Nearly 30 years later, i don't really remember much about most of them as individuals. We cooked meals for each other a couple of times a week, and hung out talking politics, music, movies, and stuff, a few nights as well.
I remember Carlton, though, and not only because no one called him Carl, at least not in my presence. He was the best cook of the bunch. He drank a Guinness in a large coffee mug after dinner most nights. He was smart as shit, one of the few 22 year olds i knew who had a pretty good idea of what he wanted from life. There was a little fried fish stand about a mile from the house that we would walk to sometimes that he had found (and me, a Long Island boy, had never seen it before) where you could get a soft shell crab plate with two crabs, fries, slaw, and bread, for $3.50. Add a cold Bud for a buck and a half, and it was the best five dollar meal you could imagine.
He graduated in May 79, and we moved on with our separate lives. Later that year, i got a call inviting me to a Christmas Eve dinner at his parents's house on Staten Island. As unexpected as the invitation was, my acceptance was probably more so, to both him and me. I was working that holiday season managing a Christmas tree stand. You Long Islanders may recall it - on the intersection of 112 and Sunrise Highway in front of the old Modell's.
Christmas Eve that year was a Monday. I shut the lot down around 1:30, and took a trip from Patchogue to Staten Island that affected me profoundly in several ways. First, i took public transportation the entire way, in several different modes. A bus from the lot to the train station. The LIRR into Manhattan. The subway to South Ferry. The Staten Island Ferry across the Narrows. And finally a bus to the Bartels' residence. That ability to travel for just a couple of bucks to a place i had never been using public conveyances had never before impressed me so much. That single trip has had a major impact in my thinking on public policy matters for the past 28 years.
More personally, though, the 45 minutes on the ferry was a trip back in time to an important place for me. As a young child, i would spend weekends with my grandmother in the Bronx, and our excursions almost always included a ride on the ferry. It was only a nickel (and she probably snuck me on for free most of the time), and with a Coke and a sandwich, it was one of the best picnics you could imagine. But after age nine or ten, those trips pretty much stopped, and it had probably been more than a dozen years since i had stepped onto the ferry that Christmas Eve. The thick green and grey paint, and the worn, heavy, and dark wooden benches brought those picnics back to me even more sharply than i felt the cold salt breeze stinging my nostrils. And this time i etched those memories of my grandmother permanently. And i still have them. Thanks to Carlton's invitation.
After that Christmas party, we probably exchanged a few postcards. But we moved on to our separate lives, like so many people whose paths we cross briefly. I heard he married his high school sweetheart, a woman named Jane who used to hang out at the house with us a lot, although i don't think she ever actually lived there.
A couple of years ago, i was back at Stony Brook, walking around campus, taking some pictures (i eventually finished my degree; it's in the attic somewhere), when i found the Stony Brook September 11 memorial. It's a tasteful garden with a sculpture of some vines climbing a pair of columns and forming an arch between them. Milton Glaser designed it.
I took some pictures, including this one.
And that's why i was thinking about Carlton Bartels this morning.