Thanksgiving on the IRT

irtOn the platform of the Lexington Avenue and 96th Street station, a tall man was bent over a trash container. His body was folded at the waist, and his long, thrashing arms banged against the sides of the container, tipping it from side to side. It was as if he were using the trash can as inverted bongo drums. He was wearing an old, ratty trench coat: brown or maybe green. On my usual route from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I was one of many subway passengers who needed to transfer from the express train to the local train on the Lexington Avenue Line of the IRT, the Interborough Rapid Transit subway. We had been waiting for some time on the platform. The muffled voice over the PA system kept promising that a local train would be arriving shortly. I needed to get to Second Avenue and 112th Street soon. If it hadn’t been so cold, I would have walked. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

My father would be arriving at JFK Airport early that evening. After school, I would take the subway directly to the airport, and then we would ride the same train back into the city. Maybe he would spring for a cab, and we could enjoy the lights of the city as we travelled toward Manhattan. I kept trying to go over the details of his visit, but the racket this man was making prevented me from thinking any clear thoughts. Who am I kidding? The thought of my father’s arrival kept me from thinking at all. The two of us would have Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow at the expensive French restaurant he found in the Michelin Guide. Two days of sightseeing would follow, and then he would fly back to LA on Sunday morning. I was already swimming in anxiety worrying about our time together. The timpani on the platform would soon turn my anxiety into crankiness—not a terrific way to arrive at school.

It was my first year teaching at an alternative junior high school in East Harlem. I had narrowly escaped some incorrigible teachers at my old school in Brooklyn. My new junior high was a school-within-a-school. We were housed on the top floor of a five-story elementary school in the Jefferson projects. We shared the fifth floor with one, lone fifth grade classroom tucked around the corner from the main hallway, way in the back. The west end staircase was the one the elementary class used. Our staircase was at the east end of the building. I generally forgot that they were even there; they were so quiet. The teacher graciously never complained about the daily racket we made.

For years, our school had held a Thanksgiving Day feast on the Wednesday before the break. The fifth grade students and their teacher were invited as our guests. Our kids would line up all the tables on the floor end-to-end down the middle hallway like one long banquet table. After listening to instructions right out of Emily Post, the students who had volunteered to bring paper goods and plastic utensils would set the table. For us, the hallway looked like the grand ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria.

Everyone on the floor had signed up to bring something for the feast. While we had suggested categories, the kids knew that whatever they brought to share would be appreciated.

While we would have no whole turkeys, numerous mothers had volunteered to bake turkey breasts. We would have large bowls filled with mountains of sweet and savory dishes tightly wrapped to stay warm. The students had bragged about the smoothness of their mothers’ mashed potatoes, the delights of their aunties’ special candied sweet potatoes, and the creaminess of their grandmothers’ secret recipes for macaroni and cheese. For our vegetable, they chose green bean casserole, a trustworthy favorite. Of course, we would also have many variations of rice and beans accompanied by dozens of chorizo sausages and empanadas. While several mothers would be contributing sweet potato pies, each member of the faculty volunteered to bring a store-bought pumpkin pie and a can of whipped cream just to make sure there would be enough for everyone. Of course, I had grander ideas.

I knew someone who tested recipes for two food writers who lived in Greenwich Village. In their tiny galley kitchen, Bert and Philip would play with variations on a theme, say, chilled soups. Sometimes they would make changes to an existing recipe they conjured up years ago. Sometimes they developed original creations with ingredients that sounded questionable to me on paper. Even though these recipes often screamed, “Don’t Eat Me!” you knew you would have to try them no matter what, and usually they were terrific. With the writers’ permission, my friend passed a few of their recipes on to me when she thought I might like them. My food budget, as well as my skill in the kitchen, usually pointed to one thing: recipes for baked chicken. Baked chicken is hard to kill, even though I had been victorious several times in the past. My friend said that I needed to broaden my horizons, so she gave me their latest chicken recipe: Tangy Broiled Chicken. She said she had faith that I was ready to advance from baked to broiled, and I said she could count on me. It sounded good. I had hopes of being wildly successful.

Most of the ingredients I needed were nowhere to be seen in my kitchen. I had salt, pepper, sugar, water, and red wine vinegar. I needed paprika, cayenne pepper, dry mustard, unsalted butter, and Worcestershire sauce. For these, I went to Donna and Ricky’s small grocery store on the corner. I also visited Liberty Meat Market on Seventh Avenue and asked Anthony for the best single chicken breast he had in the shop. Anthony always obliged. Not trusting my mathematical prowess, I made the entire amount of sauce that first time rather than try to cut it down for just me. I only used what I needed and saved the rest. I wanted to test-taste what Bert and Philip had intended, not an unreasonable facsimile. Reader, it was the best chicken breast I had ever eaten in my life. Remember that I wanted to bring something grander than store-bought pumpkin pie for our school Thanksgiving feast? You’re probably thinking Tangy Broiled Chicken. You are correct. That Tuesday night after school, I walked all the way to Key Food on Seventh Avenue for chicken parts in bulk. I came home with the equivalent of six chickens. They weren’t Anthony’s chickens, but they’d do.

I wanted to bring small masterpieces to school on Wednesday rather than paint-by-number chickens. Even though I would be following the recipe, I believed that with care and prayer my chickens tomorrow would resemble those on an eighteenth-century epicurean painting. I prepared the parts to broil in three batches. I thank the Lord that the recipe called for two chickens at a time. The possibilities for disaster were just too great if I’d had to recalculate amounts of teaspoons and tablespoons. I checked my oven racks for distance from the flame.

They were four-and-one-half inches—close enough. I preheated the broiler. I had worked out my personal assembly line perfectly; Julia Child would have been overwhelmed. I would move like a balletic octopus, something right out of Fantasia. I had already prepared one batch, so I made two more pans of the sauce at the same time. The first two chickens bathed in the marinade for an hour. Then the broiling began.

I placed my logic problem magazine on the kitchen table alongside two freshly sharpened, number two pencils. I expected to be up late, and I needed to keep my mind engaged. Every batch of chicken marinated for the desired length of time, not a moment longer. At five-minute intervals, I basted the chicken parts. They broiled 20 minutes per side. In between my culinary duties, I also figured out the first and last names of five anniversary couples, where they sat at Luigi’s Italian restaurant, and what each person ate for dessert. It was a highly productive night. Before I went to bed, I loosely dressed two chickens at a time in heavy-duty aluminum foil and placed them in the fridge. I set my alarm for one hour earlier than usual.

Wednesday morning, I removed the chickens and loosened their foil jackets. Next, I turned on the oven a little past warm. I placed the chickens in the oven. Given my long trek to school, I knew that I couldn’t bring hot chickens to school, but room temperature would be fine. I tried to get back to sleep, but after a few restless minutes, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I got up and took a shower, colder than usual. After drying my hair and fussing with old mascara, I just had to dress and leave. The only items in my backpack today would be the parts of six Tangy Broiled Chickens. I rolled each two-chicken bundle in its own dish towel, placed them all in a grocery bag, and folded the opening all the way down. After I tossed them in my backpack, I ran down the stairs and made my way toward the F train on the Independent line. I was ready to impress.

At Borough Hall, I transferred to the express train on the IRT. As usual, I didn’t get a seat; I had to wrap myself around one of the metal poles in the middle of the car. Passengers must have smelled the Tangy Broiled-ness of my chickens because they stared at my backpack, looked at me, and then back to where the smell was emanating. I wanted to grin and yell like a circus ringmaster, “Yes! You’re smelling six Tangy Broiled Chickens! I’m taking them to school! No pumpkin pie for me!” but I refrained. Any one of these folks could grab my chickens, and then bolt off the train. I considered clutching my backpack against my chest. Instead, I studied the signs above the seats of the subway cars. I found out that I could get dentures in one day at Dr. Beauchamp’s office or take a class in philanthropy at The New School for Social Research. Both of those opportunities would be lost on me. I saw no ads for cooking classes, although I was beginning to think I didn’t need one. We were nearing the 96th Street station, where many of us would depart for the local train.

I was surprised that no one else on the platform was irritated by the racket that fellow was making in the trash container. They checked their watches or read their folded papers or tapped their feet, but no one looked his way. I looked at my own watch and realized that I would be late if the local train didn’t arrive shortly. At last, a pinpoint of light appeared in the distance, and my fellow travelers broke into applause. I noticed that the trash container had stopped thrashing and banging. The silence immediately got my attention. The figure rose slowly up and out of the container. Like a dancer warming up, he unfolded one vertebra at a time. I was transfixed by the grace of his movements. When he reached his full height, he looked right at me. He stood with perfect posture. His stained coat was buttoned all the way up. His hands were at his side. After the ruckus he’d been making, his tranquility startled me. Long, greasy hair had been pulled back into a low ponytail. An unkempt moustache and scraggly beard needed a barber’s attention. Brown eyes were wide open underneath heavy brows. His face was expressionless. I had lived in New York City long enough to know that anyone rummaging deep in a trash can probably had no home and must be hungry. Standing all that while on that subway platform, it hadn’t crossed my mind. Our train had already entered the station, and the doors would close any moment. I darted toward him until I was close enough to speak directly to his face as though we were the same height. In a frenzy, I unzipped my backpack and pulled out the bag of chickens. I was panicky. “Here,” I said, “take these. Share them!” I just made the train, and we arrived at the 110th Street station on time.

I couldn’t arrive at school empty-handed. Fortunately for me, the bodega on 113th Street had three pies left on a shelf. They were not pumpkin but apple. I didn’t check the sell-by date; I knew they’d be fine. I grabbed three cans of whipped cream, paid for my items, ran to school and up those five flights of stairs. I made it in plenty of time. My friend David teased me about bringing pies after I had been so secretive about my contribution. “And they aren’t even pumpkin!” I tried to explain what had happened at 96th Street, but all that came out was gibberish. I bailed and said that I was nervous about my father’s visit, and I couldn’t concentrate last night. That was close enough to the truth. David gave me his crooked grin, shook his head, and asked Trina Corley to count the place settings one last time; we had to have room for everyone at the table. David led us in grace; it was humorous and secular, but it did the trick. Even without my chickens, we all had plenty to eat. I was thankful that day for my school. The students both entertained and inspired me. My colleagues were eccentric and gifted in miraculous ways. All of us on the top floor shared a vision—maybe even with our fifth grade friends.

My father’s visit turned out just fine. We spent time together that was both rich and long overdue. He told me family stories I’d never heard. A few of them made me sad, but most of them delighted me. We took a cab back to the airport from Brooklyn.

Many years later when I had a family of my own, I told this story after one of our Quaker meetings. It must have been close to Thanksgiving. The story I told them was much briefer. I like this version better. This time, I wanted to get everything down in detail. Now I realize that 30 years after our school Thanksgiving feast, I did see the man on the platform again, actually on many occasions. His face graced church ceilings all over Italy during our honeymoon, but at the time, it didn’t register. I hope he was pleased to see me again.

Jeanine M. Dell’Olio

Jeanine M. Dell’Olio is a professor emerita from the Education Department of Hope College. She is a member of Holland (Mich.) Meeting.

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