The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

  My heart started to race, and my palms grew damp. I walked down the bus aisle to the tiny restroom in the rear and washed up in the metal basin. I studied my face in the mirror and wondered what New Yorkers would think when they looked at me. Would they see an Appalachian hick, a tall, gawky girl, still all elbows and knees and jutting teeth? For years Dad had been telling me I had an inner beauty. Most people didn’t see it. I had trouble seeing it myself, but Dad was always saying he could damn well see it and that was what mattered. I hoped when New Yorkers looked at me, they would see whatever it was that Dad saw.

  When the bus pulled into the terminal, I collected my suitcase and walked to the middle of the station. A blur of hurrying bodies streamed past me, leaving me feeling like a stone in a creek, and then I heard someone calling my name. He was a pale guy with thick, black-framed glasses that made his eyes look tiny. His name was Evan, and he was a friend of Lori’s. She was at work and had asked him to come meet me. Evan offered to carry my suitcase and led me out to the street, a noisy place with crowds backed up waiting to cross the intersection, cars jammed together, and papers blowing every which way. I followed him right into the thick of it.

  After one block, Evan put down my suitcase. “This is heavy,” he said. “What do you have in here?”

  “My coal collection.”

  He looked at me blankly.

  “Just funning with you,” I said and punched him in the shoulder. Evan wasn’t too quick on the uptake, but I took that as a good sign. There was no reason for me to be automatically in awe of the wit and intellect of these New Yorkers.

  I picked up the suitcase. Evan did not insist I give it back to him. In fact, he seemed sort of relieved that I was carrying it. We continued on down the block, and he kept glancing at me sideways.

  “You West Virginia girls are one tough breed,” he said.

  “You got that right,” I told him.

  Evan dropped me off at a German restaurant called Zum Zum. Lori was behind the counter, carrying four beer steins in each hand, her hair in twin buns and speaking in a thick German accent because, she explained later, it increased tips. “Dees ees mein seester!” she called out to the men at one of her tables. They raised their beer steins and shouted. “Velkomen to New Yorken!”

  I didn’t know any German, so I said, “Grazi!”

  They all got a chuckle out of that. Lori was in the middle of her shift, so I went out to wander the streets. I got lost a couple of times and had to ask directions. People had been warning me for months about how rude New Yorkers were. It was true, I learned that night, that if you tried to stop them on the street, a lot of them kept on walking, shaking their heads; those who did stop didn’t look at you at first. They gazed off down the block, their faces closed. But as soon as they realized you weren’t trying to hustle them or panhandle money, they warmed right up. They looked you in the eye and gave you detailed instructions about how, to get to the Empire State Building, you went up nine blocks and made a right and cut across two blocks and so on. They even drew you maps. New Yorkers, I figured, just pretended to be unfriendly.

  Later, Lori and I took a subway down to Greenwich Village and walked over to the Evangeline, a women’s hostel where she had been living. That first night I woke up at three a.m. and saw the sky all lit up a bright orange. I wondered if there was a big fire somewhere, but in the morning Lori told me that the orange glow came from the air pollution refracting the light off the streets and buildings. The night sky here, she said, always had that color. What it meant was that in New York, you could never see the stars. But Venus wasn’t a star. I wondered if I’d be able to see it.

  The very next day, I landed a job at a hamburger joint on Fourteenth Street. After taxes and social security, I’d be taking home over eighty dollars a week. I had spent a lot of time imagining what New York would be like, but the one thing that had never occurred to me was that the opportunities would come so easily. Aside from having to wear those embarrassing red-and-yellow uniforms with matching floppy hats, I loved the job. The lunch and dinner rushes were always exciting, with the lines backing up at the counter, the cashiers shouting orders over the microphones, the grill guys shoveling hamburgers through the flame-broiling conveyer belt, everyone running from the fixings counter to the drinks station to the infrared fries warmer, staying on top of the orders, the manager jumping in to help whenever a crisis cropped up. We got 20 percent off on our meals, and for the first few weeks there, I had a cheeseburger and a chocolate milk shake every day for lunch.

  In the middle of the summer, Lori found us an apartment in a neighborhood we could afford—the South Bronx. The yellow art deco building must have been pretty fancy when it opened, but now graffiti covered the outside walls, and the cracked mirrors in the lobby were held together with duct tape. Still, it had what Mom called good bones.

  Our apartment was bigger than the entire house on Little Hobart Street, and way fancier. It had shiny oak parquet floors, a foyer with two steps leading down into the living room—where I slept—and, off to the side, a bedroom that became Lori’s. We also had a kitchen with a working refrigerator and a gas stove that had a pilot light, so you didn’t need matches to get it going, you just turned the dial, listened to the clicking, then watched the circle of blue flame flare up through the tiny holes in the burner. My favorite room was the bathroom. It had a black-and-white tile floor, a toilet that flushed with a powerful whoosh, a tub so deep you could submerge yourself completely in it, and hot water that never ran out.

  It didn’t bother me that the apartment was in a rough neighborhood; we’d always lived in rough neighborhoods. Puerto Rican kids hung out on the block at all hours, playing music, dancing, sitting on abandoned cars, clustering at the entrance to the elevated subway station and in front of the bodega that sold single cigarettes called loosies. I got jumped a number of times. People were always telling me that if I was robbed, I should hand over my money rather than risk being killed. But I was darned if I was going to give some stranger my hard-earned cash, and I didn’t want to become known in the neighborhood as an easy target, so I always fought back. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. What worked best was to keep my wits about me. Once, as I was getting on the train, some guy tried to grab my purse, but I jerked it back and the strap broke. He fell empty-handed to the platform floor, and as the train pulled out, I looked through the window and gave him a big sarcastic wave.

  That fall, Lori helped me find a public school where, instead of going to classes, the students signed up for internships all over the city. One of my internships was at The Phoenix, a weekly newspaper run out of a dingy storefront on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, near the old Ex-Lax factory. The owner, publisher, and editor in chief was Mike Armstrong. He saw himself as a muckraking gadfly and had mortgaged his brownstone five times to keep The Phoenix going. The staff all used Underwood manual typewriters with threadbare ribbons and yellowed keys. The E on mine was broken, so I used the @ in its place. We never had copy paper and instead wrote on discarded press releases we dug out of the trash. At least once a month, someone’s paycheck bounced. Reporters were always quitting in disgust. In the spring, when Mr. Armstrong was interviewing a journalism school graduate for a job opening, a mouse ran over her foot, and she screamed. After she’d left, Mr. Armstrong looked at me. The Brooklyn zoning board was meeting that afternoon and he had no one to cover it. “If you start calling me Mike instead of Mr. Armstrong,” he said. “you can have the job.”

  I had just turned eighteen. I quit my job at the hamburger joint the next day and became a full-time reporter for The Phoenix. I’d never been happier in my life. I worked ninety-hour weeks, my telephone rang constantly, I was always hurrying off to interviews and checking the ten-dollar Rolex I’d bought on the street to make sure I wasn’t running late, rushing back to file my copy, and staying up until four a.m. to set type when the typesetter quit. And I was bringing home $125 a week. If the check cleared.

  I wrote Bria
n long letters describing the sweet life in New York City. He wrote back saying things in Welch were still going downhill. Dad was drunk all the time except when he was in jail; Mom had completely withdrawn into her own world; and Maureen was more or less living with neighbors. The ceiling in the bedroom had collapsed, and Brian had moved his bed onto the porch. He made walls by nailing boards along the railings, but it leaked pretty badly out there, too, so he still slept under the inflatable raft.

  I told Lori that Brian should come live with us in New York, and she agreed. But I was afraid Brian would want to stay in Welch. He seemed more of a country boy than a city kid. He was always wandering through the woods, tinkering with a discarded two-stroke engine, chopping wood, or carving a block of wood into an animal head. He never complained about Welch, and unlike Lori and me, he’d made a lot of friends there. But I thought it was in Brian’s long-term interest to get out of the town. I made a list of reasons he should move to New York, so I could argue him into it.

  I called him at Grandpa’s and presented my case. He’d need to get a job to pay his share of the rent and groceries, I said, but jobs were going begging in the city. He could share the living room with me—there was plenty of space for a second bed—the toilet flushed, and the ceiling never leaked.

  When I finished, Brian was silent for a moment. Then he said, “When’s the soonest I can come?”

  Just like me, Brian hopped the Trailways bus the morning after completing his junior year. The day after he got to New York, he found a job at an ice-cream parlor in Brooklyn, not far from The Phoenix. He said he liked Brooklyn better than Manhattan or the Bronx, but he also developed a habit of dropping by The Phoenix when he got off work and waiting for me until three or four in the morning so we could take the subway together up to the South Bronx. He never said anything, but I think he figured that, as when we were kids, we both stood a better chance if we took on the world together.

  I now saw no point in going to college. It was expensive, and my aim in going would have been to get a degree to qualify me for a job as a journalist. But I now had my job at The Phoenix. As for the learning itself, I figured you didn’t need a college degree to become one of the people who knew what was really going on. If you paid attention, you could pick things up on your own. And so, if I overheard mention of something I was ignorant about—keeping Kosher, Tammany Hall, haute couture—I researched it later on. One day I interviewed a community activist who described a particular job program as a throwback to the Progressive Era. I had no idea what the Progressive Era was, and back in the office, I got out the World Book Encyclopedia. Mike Armstrong wanted to know what I was doing, and when I explained, he asked me if I had ever thought of going to college.

  “Why should I give up this job to go to college?” I asked. “You’ve got college graduates working here who are doing what I’m doing.”

  “You may not believe this,” he said. “but there are better jobs out there than the one you’ve got now. You might get one of them one of these days. But not without a college degree.” Mike promised me that if I went to college, I could come back to The Phoenix anytime I wanted. But, he added, he didn’t think I would.

  Lori’s friends told me that Columbia University was the best in New York City. Since it took only men at the time, I applied to its sister college, Barnard, and was accepted. I received grants and loans to cover most of the tuition, which was steep, and I’d saved a little money while working at The Phoenix. But to pay for the rest, I had to spend a year answering phones at a Wall Street firm.

  Once school started, I could no longer pay my share of the rent, but a psychologist let me have a room in her Upper West Side apartment in exchange for looking after her two small sons. I found a weekend job in an art gallery, crowded all my classes into two days, and became the news editor of the Barnard Bulletin. But I gave that up when I was hired as an editorial assistant three days a week at one of the biggest magazines in the city. Writers there had published books and covered wars and interviewed presidents. I got to forward their mail, check their expense accounts, and do word counts on their manuscripts. I felt I’d arrived.

  Mom and Dad called us now and then from Grandpa’s to bring us up to date on life in Welch. I began to dread those calls, since every time we heard from them, there was a new problem: a mudslide had washed away what was left of the stairs; our neighbors the Freemans were trying to get the house condemned; Maureen had fallen off the porch and gashed her head.

  When Lori heard that, she declared it was time for Maureen to move to New York, too. But Maureen was only twelve, and I worried that she might be too young to leave home. She’d been four when we moved to West Virginia, and it was all she really knew.

  “Who’s going to look after her?” I asked.

  “I will,” Lori said. “She can stay with me.”

  Lori called Maureen, who got squeally with excitement about the idea, and then Lori talked to Mom and Dad. Mom thought it was a great plan, but Dad accused Lori of stealing his children and declared he was disowning her. Maureen arrived in early winter. By then Brian had moved into a walk-up near the Port Authority bus terminal, and using his address, we enrolled Maureen in a good public school in Manhattan. On weekends, we all met at Lori’s apartment. We made fried pork chops or heaping plates of spaghetti and meatballs and sat around talking about Welch, laughing so hard at the idea of all that craziness that our eyes watered.

  O NE MORNING THREE years after I’d moved to New York, I was getting ready for class and listening to the radio. The announcer reported a terrible traffic jam on the New Jersey Turnpike. A van had broken down, spilling clothes and furniture all over the road and creating a big backup. The police were trying to clear the highway, but a dog had jumped out of the van and was running up and down the turnpike as a couple of officers chased after him. The announcer got a lot of mileage out of the story, going on about the rubes with their clunker of a vehicle and yapping dog who were making thousands of New York commuters late for work.

  That night the psychologist told me I had a phone call.

  “Jeannettie-kins!” It was Mom. “Guess what?” she asked in a voice brimming with excitement. “Your daddy and I have moved to New York!”

  The first thing I thought about was the van that had broken down on the turnpike that morning. When I asked Mom about it, she admitted that yes, she and Dad had a teensy bit of technical difficulty with the van. It had popped a belt on some big, crowded highway, and Tinkle, who was sick and tired of being cooped up, you know how that goes, had gotten loose. The police had shown up, and Dad got into an argument with them, and they threatened to arrest him, and gosh it was quite the drama. “How did you know?” she asked.

  “It was on the radio.”

  “On the radio?” Mom asked. She couldn’t believe it. “With everything going on in the world these days, an old van popping a belt is news?” But there was genuine glee in her voice. “We only just got here, and we’re already famous!”

  After talking to Mom, I looked around my room. It was the maid’s room off the kitchen, and it was tiny, with one narrow window and a bathroom that doubled as a closet. But it was mine. I had a room now, and I had a life, too, and there was no place in either one for Mom and Dad.

  Still, the next day I went up to Lori’s apartment to see them. Everyone was there. Mom and Dad hugged me. Dad pulled a pint of whiskey out of a paper bag while Mom described their various adventures on the trip. They had gone sightseeing earlier that day, and taken their first ride on the subway, which Dad called a goddamn hole in the ground. Mom said the art deco murals at Rockefeller Center were disappointing, not nearly as good as some of her own paintings. None of us kids was doing much to help carry the conversation.

  “So, what’s the plan?” Brian finally asked. “You’re moving here?”

  “We have moved,” Mom said.

  “For good?” I asked.

  “That’s right,” Dad said.

  “Why?” I asked. The q
uestion came out sharply.

  Dad looked puzzled, as if the answer should have been obvious. “So we could be a family again.” He raised his pint. “To the family,” he said.

  Mom and Dad found a room in a boardinghouse a few blocks from Lori’s apartment. The steely-haired landlady helped them move in, and a couple of months later, when they fell behind on their rent, she put their belongings on the street and padlocked their room. Mom and Dad moved into a six-story flophouse in a more dilapidated neighborhood. They lasted there a few months, but when Dad set their room on fire by falling asleep with a burning cigarette in his hand, they got kicked out. Brian believed that Mom and Dad needed to be forced to be self-sufficient or they’d be dependent on us forever, so he refused to take them in. But Lori had moved out of the South Bronx and into an apartment in the same building as Brian, and she let them come stay with her and Maureen. It would be for just a week or two, Mom and Dad assured her, a month at the most, while they got a kitty together and looked for a new place.

  One month at Lori’s became two months and then three and four. Each time I visited, the apartment was more jam-packed. Mom hung paintings on the walls and stacked street finds in the living room and put colored bottles in the windows for that stained-glass effect. The stacks reached the ceiling, and then the living room filled up, and Mom’s collectibles and found art overflowed into the kitchen.

  But it was Dad who was really getting to Lori. While he hadn’t found steady work, he always had mysterious ways of hustling up pocket money, and he’d come home at night drunk and gunning for an argument. Brian saw that Lori was on the verge of snapping, so he invited Dad to come live with him. He put a lock on the booze cabinet, but Dad had been there under a week when Brian came home and found that Dad had used a screwdriver to take the door off its hinges and then guzzled down every single bottle.

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