As I drove into Cunningham Park that humid, overcast morning in Jamaica Estates, Queens, back in June of ‘07, my mind became lost in a maze of confusion. The entrance was a long windy narrow road that veered off of Union Turnpike. Trees to my right, gravel, and abandoned dusty parking lots with boulders to my left. I lowered the driver’s window and a maple syrup scent trickled into the car followed by a smoky after-taste of acorns. There was more than one fork in the road and no sign of life anywhere. I thought to myself, “Where is the Berkshire Hills lot?” At the end of one quiet lane I saw a Greyhound bus in a large parking lot, it’s driver leaning up against the side thumbing through a magazine. I got out of my Camry and walked up to him.
“Hi, I’m looking for the buses to Berkshire Hills Emanuel Camps,”
His demeanor was quiet and brief. “Berkshire, who?” he asked.
“The camp buses, is this the right lot?” I questioned.
“There’s eight of ‘em. What lot you lookin’ for?”
I sighed and said, “That’s why I’m asking you.”
I shook my head, took a deep breath, and started to walk back to the car.
“North side, or south side?” the driver yelled out.
“What?!” I asked.
“What side of the park is the bus on?” he wanted to know.
I waved and kindly thanked him.
“It’s OK, I’ll find it…somehow,” I informed him.
One month earlier, on the drive back to Long Island, Marlee, my daughter, informed me that she was going to sleep-away camp. The day camp she’d been attending for the last few years had only accepted campers up until the summer after fifth grade. Marlee was nearing the end of her sixth grade year when she sprung the news to me on the Northern State Parkway. At first I found it hard to believe, but after several minutes, the conversation turned serious.
“Sleep-away camp?” I questioned.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Who’s idea was that? I asked.
“Mommy’s,” she told me.
“I’m too old,” she told me.
“Too old?!” I exclaimed.
“Why do you keep repeating everything?” she asked.
I went silent for a few seconds then glared at her.
“I can’t go past 5th grade with them,” she explained.
“You’re kidding me? And you’re going to sleep-away camp?”
“I guess,” she answered.
“For how many weeks?” I asked.
“I don’t know, mommy found it,” she revealed.
Marlee’s mother had surfed the internet for weeks looking for a reputable camp without speaking to me. A successful on-going task she’d done on her own without any confrontation. In other words, she went behind my back and figured I’d never find out. I’d been separated just over four years and our and conversations were rare. When we did speak I would try to hold our verbal sparring matches to the bare minimum by hanging up in the middle. She’d either relentlessly text me back, or leave voice mail messages asking for an immediate response. The subject of sleep-away camp never came up in any of our bitter altercations. My mind went into a frenzy.
Then I remembered my summers at Lake Owego, the sleep-away camp my parents signed me up for in Milford, PA at the age of nine. What were my parents thinking back then? Why did they send me away to summer camp at such a young age?
I had attended for the entire month of July, four summers in a row, and learned to be independent and self-sufficient very early. By the time I had graduated high school, the transition to college in the mid-west was easy. Only then did I realize that my parents had made the right decision. The thing that concerned me was being stuck with a bill from a camp I knew nothing about.
Marlee’s grandmother phoned me a few days later and apologized for not speaking with me sooner. She told me the director had already been phoned, the fee had been negotiated based on several underlying factors, and the deposit had already been sent. Then she told me the details. The camp was in an obscure area of upstate New York in a town that bordered Great Barrington, MA, called Copake. Marlee would be going for seven weeks, and the bus would leave from Cunningham Park in Queens at the very end of June. She gave me the director’s name, phone number and email address in case I had questions. On the day of departure, she and her husband would drive Marlee to the Park, and I would have to meet them there if I wanted to see her off. Marlee and I spoke the night before.
“Are you coming?” she asked.
“Why wouldn’t I?” I answered.
“No, really, are you?” she whined again.
“Yes,” I insisted.
“What time?” she wanted to know.
“What time, what?”
“What time will you be there?”
“The time that it says the buses will be arriving. It’s on their site,” I told her.
“Listen, enough with the questions, when you get there, you’ll see me,”
“Fine,” she blurted out and then sighed into the receiver.
I printed out mapquest’s most direct route and ventured into an area I was unfamiliar with. As I entered Queens, I rolled down the window at stop lights and asked other drivers if I was headed in the right direction. No one knew English, and the ones that did, shrugged their shoulders and had no idea what I was talking about. “Where am I?” I thought. I had a picture of this Park in my mind as some tiny field in a run-down neighborhood with a rusty swing set and damaged monkey bars.
Oddly enough, I stumbled upon an endless forest minutes later filled with miniature gardens, baseball fields, eateries, tennis courts, bicycle paths, and countless parking lots. I’d passed a sign at the entrance that said, “Welcome to Cunningham Park.” After weaving in and out of several narrow crossroads and entering the wrong lot more than once, I turned into a small unpaved area and saw kids in tank tops, sandals, and baseball hats, with their parents. “This has to be the right place,” I thought. Car doors had been opened and trunks popped. Duffle bags, suitcases, and large cardboard boxes were scattered everywhere. I sat and waited until the bus pulled in. Marlee and her grandparents came shortly after. Camp was officially in session. As the bus pulled away almost an hour later, I waved goodbye as she looked out the window, a sad but definitive moment. Visiting day was four weeks later. Jan, my girlfriend, Marlee, and I, spent the day in Great Barrington walking in and out of shops, and eating lunch at Friendly’s. Then we took a sneak peek at the campgrounds. It brought back memories.
One year later I had an idea.
“Hey Colin, you live in Jamaica Estates, right?” I asked him.
“I’m thinking of taking the subway to Cunningham Park this year rather than drive,” I told him.
Yeah, my car is rattling from all the wear and tear I’ve put on it lately. It doesn’t sound too good. Besides, I’ll save on gas, tolls, and mileage. My daughter leaves for camp in two weeks.”
“Good idea, it’s easy,” he said.
A colleague of mine lived a few blocks away from Cunningham Park and rode the subway every morning to downtown Manhattan. He said door to door it was 90 minutes. I’d be going the opposite way but thought, “Can’t be much different. That’s almost as long as it took me last year.” The bus was slated to leave at the same time, 7:30am, from the same beat-up parking lot. Colin had given me vague directions that I failed to write down, but simple enough that it would be a smooth commute. I’d leave myself enough time to catch a train from Herald Square at 34th St. that would take me directly to Jamaica (the last stop) and then I’d hop a bus to the Park. I tried to explain to Marlee that it was much easier for me to ride the subway than to worry about my car getting stuck, or other cars on the road. I could sit and read for an hour or listen to music. There would be less stress and no aggravation. The night before she left for camp we spoke.
“But Daddy, you said you’d would drive to…”
“When did I say that?” I asked her.
“You said,” she whined.
“I said what? I’m taking the subway and…”
“Why does it matter if I take the subway or drive?” I wanted to know.
“Because you won’t make it,”
“Why would you say that?”
“You won’t and…”
“Listen, I’ll be there, probably before you,” I told her.
“Ugh, bring gum and magazines then,” she nagged.
“I want gum, and magazines so I can read on the bus,”
I had stepped onto the downtown subway in West Harlem the following morning at 6:05. My Harry Potter book magically opened up and I sunk my nose into the fine print. Within minutes I was riding the express train down to Times Square. Ten minutes after that I wandered through the Herald Square station looking for the F train uptown to Queens.
On the F train platform, I couldn’t remember where Colin had told me to stand. Bits and pieces of his endless drivel floated in my head. If only I had paid more attention to his random chatter. His voice echoed inside my subconscious.
“When you get to the F, make sure you’re in the last car and ride that to the end…When you get to the F, make sure you’re in the first car and ride it to the end…When you get to the F, make sure you ride it to the end…”
I started talking to myself. My thoughts became scattered and I wasn’t thinking clearly. I paced back and forth, waiting, not knowing, which direction this train would be coming from, or where to position myself on the platform. My cell phone clock read 6:25, almost an hour to get to the Park. The bus would drop me at the entrance and I’d walk and somehow find the lot. Several minutes later I calmly sat on an air-conditioned F train anticipating a smooth ride. I got on somewhere in the middle and glanced up at the electric subway stops near the top of the wall and counted “14” stops until Jamaica. It was 6:35.
“This is the train to Jamaica, the next stop is Parsons Boulevard.” I peeked at the time. It was 7:10 and I was still sitting on the F train with two stops to go. The anxiety built in my system. I felt a wave of stomach cramps but knew that once I was on the bus to the Park, they’d go away. At the Jamaica station, I darted up the closest stairwell to the outside, looked left, then right, and couldn’t locate the bus stop. I saw a small crowd of people gathered in one area and asked someone where the Q17 bus stopped. Someone smiled and said “here,” and I quietly let out a sigh of relief. When I glanced at the time it was 7:17.
The Q17 pulled up and before I dropped my metrocard into the slot I asked the bus driver,
“You go to Cunningham Park, right?”
He gave me a blank stare. The passengers weren’t paying attention as I asked again.
“Cunningham Park, right?”
“Union Turnpike, not Cunningham Park.” he nodded sideways.
He stared, said nothing, then shook his head “not this bus.”
I got off and waited on the sidewalk without a clue. Two minutes later the Q36 pulled up. The bus driver shook his head. When the second Q17 driver told me that no line goes directly to the Park, I felt nauseas. My chest clamped up and I couldn’t breathe. Mild dizziness set in and I began to panic. My cell phone rang at 7:24. I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them.
“Daddy, are you almost here?”
“Hang on cookie, just a few more minutes,”
“The lady bus driver said she’s leaving in five minutes,”
“Oh God, tell her to wait, please.” I begged.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I’m here, in Queens,”
“Ugh, so, how much longer?”
“I’m not sure how I…”
As I was speaking with Marlee someone tapped me on the back. I turned and saw a short black-haired Asian woman in a tight black dress and high heels. She carried a handbag and pointed down the block.
“Excuse me?” I asked her.
“Daddy?” Marlee continued to talk.
I took the phone away from my ear for a second and questioned the Asian woman.
“You need taxi?” she asked me.
“Yes, down block, taxi,” and pointed to a place down the street.
“Marlee, let me call you back,” I told her.
“But Daddy, the bus is gonna leave,” she moaned.
“Hang on, tell her to please, hang on,”
I made a mad dash in the direction of this lady’s index finger and within a minute a half, found myself at a taxi stand telling a driver I needed to get to Cunningham Park in a hurry. “Two minutes,” he told me. He puttered onto 179th St. and within seconds was giving me a tour of some of the most expensive homes in the nation. “That’s nice, that’s nice, please, faster.” He crept along as if he was a tour guide and I was his out-of-state tourist seeking approval. When we hit Union Turnpike it all looked familiar. He circled into the lot in the midst of a hundred parents and friends. The astonished look on their faces was priceless. I felt like a rock star boarding the bus before my 52 date east coast tour. I paid him, thanked him, and jumped out. I hopped onto the bus and noticed that every camper had boarded. The lady bus driver was perched in her comfort zone with the motor running. It felt as if the wind had been knocked from me as I traipsed down the aisle toward Marlee.
“I made it cookie. Do I ever let you down?” I said catching my breath.
I opened the knapsack and handed her a package of chewing gum and three magazines.
I leaned down, gave her a hug, kissed her, and told her we’d see her in a few weeks on visiting day. I expected a round of applause but instead they all glared at me as if I was some famous celebrity. As soon as I stepped off the bus, it pulled out. “Another twist of fate,” I thought as I stood in a daze and watched as the Berkshire Hills carriage left that dirty lot. My cell phone clock read 7:40. Under my breath I stared into space and said, “Thank you.”
A few minutes later, my ex offered to drive me back to the F train. I opted against ten minutes of meaningless babble and wanted to walk and listen to my itouch. It was far, but in the moment, I didn’t care. As a Dad, I had crossed the finish line with pride and dignity, scored the winning goal, sunk the winning basket. With my headset in, the Cowsills played on. I’ve never really considered myself a rock star. In Marlee’s mind that morning, I wasn’t anything else.