Detours

By Sue Repko

That night — it’s December 2009 — I’m meeting some women writer friends in the city, and I need to find Panchito’s Mexican Restaurant on a map. I know it’s at 105 MacDougal Street, but I don’t know what subway to take. I scan what Google gives me, and my eye is drawn to a New York Times headline: LIVES AFTER 7-STORY FALL. Apparently, some guy tried to commit suicide at 105 MacDougal back when it was a tenement.

Bandit's Roost 59 1/2 Mulberry Street (1890) by Jacob Riis

Bandit’s Roost, 59 1/2 Mulberry Street (1890) by Jacob Riis

Well, that’s depressing. One minute, I’m thinking chips and salsa, the next, a freefall.

Still, I click away from the maps and the restaurant reviews, and land inside the story, published May 4, 1905.

On the way down from a seventh floor window, Edward Botts hit a bunch of clotheslines strung between two buildings and narrowly missed a fence. The clothing cushioned his fall. It appeared as though he was only suffering from shock. As he lay in St. Vincent’s, the police charged him with attempted suicide. This strikes me as cruel and unwarranted. Bouncing over to Wikipedia, I learn that up until 1963, attempted suicide was still considered a crime in six states, although enforcement was probably limited. Hardly the case for Edward. Or for Mrs. Joseph Gerfasi.

Ten days after the Botts story, the Times reported how Mrs. Gerfasi failed in multiple attempts to hurl herself into the East River. She’d gone to visit her baby, who had the measles, on North Brother Island, only to learn that the baby had died. (Beginning in 1885, the island was home to Riverside Hospital, where they quarantined people with communicable diseases, including the infamous Typhoid Mary.) They wouldn’t let Mrs. Gerfasi bring the body home. Of course, she was distraught. What mother wouldn’t be? They put her on something called a “naphtha launch,” which — I had to look this up — turns out to be a small boat with a naphtha engine that was cheaper to run since it didn’t have to be operated by a licensed engineer like the steamboats of the time. Anyway, this was when the true depths of Mrs. Gerfasi’s grief became apparent. She tried to end her life in the middle of the river, at the East 138th Street landing, and then along the shore. Finally, they put her in a patrol wagon. She was twenty-seven years old.

When I was not much older than Mrs. Gerfasi, I used to worry that someone would kidnap my infant sons from their second-story bedrooms. I kept checking the window locks at night. We lived on a bucolic road in the same township where the Lindbergh baby was found dead. I don’t think I thought of the Lindbergh baby at the time. But maybe I did. Maybe I was being vigilant against the fear of loss that blanketed those early years of parenting. I knew then that life could be snatched away in an instant. A heartbeat is there and then it’s not. Mothers, especially, know this. Someone had shown me the Lindbergh house once, on a wooded knoll on Sourland Mountain, where I used to drive my oldest son to try to get him to sleep. I wound around those narrow mountain roads, trees hemming me in, sipping coffee, trying to stay awake, grateful to be lost, to not have to think about where I was going, to give myself over to it.

But I digress.

The article said that Edward Botts was a journeyman jeweler. I bet he had smooth hands and long fingers.

It also said he was a regular visitor to his wife’s furnished room at 105 MacDougal Street.

Yes, that gave me pause as well.

A regular visitor? Were they separated? He told police that he lived at 106 MacDougal, but people there said they’d never heard of him. Why would he lie? To make it appear to outsiders as though the distance between him and Mrs. Botts, the width of a narrow city street, was not so great?

Edward showed up at his wife’s room at 7:30 in the morning — it was a Wednesday — an odd time to come calling, unless he’d been up all night, unable to get the image of Mrs. Botts out of his mind, replaying their last conversation, perhaps imagining her with another man, trying to stop those thoughts, if only he could see her, convince her… of what? The article says that Edward had either fallen or jumped. But could there have been a struggle? Did he try to take Mrs. Botts with him?

That morning the neighbors below heard a woman scream, and then there was Edward, falling through the air, hitting each of five clotheslines, the little detours that saved his life.

Poor Edward. He survived. And his failures were in the paper for all of New York to read and, now, more than a century later, for someone like me to stumble upon. Then again, he did get a second chance, and maybe he was grateful for that. Maybe everything looked new from his bed at St. Vincent’s. Maybe Mrs. Botts wasn’t worth it. Maybe New York wasn’t worth it. Maybe he woke up, changed. There is something to be said for planting and harvesting, for callused hands, for midnight moonlight and the sound of loons on a lake far from the city.

My friend Suzanne and I take New Jersey Transit from the suburbs into Penn Station and then the A-train, the express, downtown to West 4th Street. At 105 MacDougal, we walk partway around the block, sizing it up, trying to see where this might have occurred, but it’s too dark, misting. Even though we’re both memoirists, used to working in the dark, creeping through back alleys and risking dead ends, used to being buffeted about between fact and meaning, we’re starved and chilled, and nothing will be solved this evening. Time to make a beeline for Panchito’s front door.

Inside it’s warm, and the guacamole is so good, the way it slides down, and the beer going after it, and I try to hold onto just how it tastes, just how it feels, in the company of these women, some mothers, some not, some in and some out of love, memoirists all, who choose to struggle through their hauntings and revelations, who want to eat and drink and live.

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About Sue Repko

Sue Repko's nonfiction and fiction have appeared in The Common, Swink, Princeton Alumni Weekly, The Gettysburg Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Tattoo Highway, The Bryant Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is also the author of Legendary Locals of Pottstown (Arcadia Publishing.) She teaches English and coaches girls' basketball at The Hill School in her hometown of Pottstown, PA.

7 Comments

  1. Amalia Gladhart
    Posted March 2015 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    So many intriguing connections–I’m thinking about the way even borrowed memories begin to fill a space, and the pleasure of looking things up, things you didn’t know you didn’t know. Thanks for this. (And I couldn’t *not* read an essay called “Detours.”)

  2. Sue Repko
    Posted March 2015 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Hi, Amalia — This piece gestated for awhile, allowing those connections and memories to sort of wander into the same space – I like that idea. Thank you! (I had noticed our “Detours” synchronicity as well :-))

  3. Posted April 2015 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    What a gracefully thought-out and told story. And I love the near end about memoirists working in the dark, “risking dead ends . . ..” This essay shows how a chance occurrence (stumbling across a newspaper article) can send thoughts in myriad directions, like the arms of an octopus. A real joy!

    • Posted May 2016 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      Dear Lynette, a belated “thank you!” “Octopus tentacles” is a good way to describe the way my thoughts and the internet commingled to take me down the winding path that became this piece.

  4. Posted April 2015 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    I guess I should have written “octopus tentacles.”

  5. Posted December 2016 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations, Sue! This essay was included in this year’s Best American Essays’ list of “Notable Essays and Literary Non-Fiction of 2016”!! (As was Amy Glynn’s “Apple” from the same Spring 2015 issue!).

    Click here for the list…

    Congratulations on a well-deserved recognition!

    • Posted December 2016 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

      Thank you so much, Tyler! It was very exciting to hear this news. And congrats to Amy Glynn and Literal Latte as well. It speaks to the awesome work that you all are doing to bring good stories to the world.

One Trackback

  • By Publishing news! | Sue Repko on March 2015 at 9:58 pm

    […] publications include a review of Motherland by Maria Hummel at The Common online and a flash essay, “Detours,” at […]

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