I have a tendency to get lost. Alongside my earliest memory of motion is the corresponding memory of finding myself at a destination well outside my original game plan.
The first time this happened I was three years old and in a large field behind the garden apartments where I lived with my parents.
That time it came at the lure of a train whistle.
The tracks lay on the far side of the field and well beyond my view; standing as I was, not more than half an inch taller than the dried grasses that separated us. But the hypnotic sound of grating iron heaving and merging in a machined fit of rhythmic insistence was too compelling for my fledgling curiosity and roundly ordered my toddling march from the constraints of our patio toward enlightenment.
Being less sure-footed in execution than intention, I quickly found myself swallowed whole by the coarse and inhospitable reeds surrounding me and realized at the same moment that not only had I lost sight of home, but that the train had now become no more than a faint, high whistle on tin rails at a distance much to far to consider; even for one as intrepid as I.
The thought occurred to me that I should cry; that perhaps the crows above me circling for prey more suitable than a three year old in corduroys and Maryjane's, might alert my mother that I'd once more fallen from the nest.
But then there were also the very real fears of parental retribution to consider. This usually involved my father and an unpleasant encounter with a flat "Beaver" paddle ordinarily used to beat rugs. I was well aware that it's dual purpose was to tan the fannies of insurgent youth, and although my father's gentle hand, bent by the grace of fraternal guilt, mitigated the hostility of the act itself; it could not eliminate my own grief over having let him down or the fear that this time I might well put him over the edge and incite a heavier blow.
Fortunately on that day, my recovery came by another sound: That of my mother calling me in for lunch. With restrained panic I tethered my ears to the thin trail of her young voice and tracked my way back to the safety of home claiming only that I had been just around the farthest side of the building.
But when it happened again the following year, it did not go as smoothly.
Ironically, this time it also involved trains. More specifically, the train station. We had moved by that time from the apartment to a small, pleasant house on a kid-infested street, lined by clapboard dwellings of settled domesticity. However, it was far from the parochial school where I attended kindergarten, and the perimeters of school-bus convenience were too taxed to warrant a school-sponsored ride.
The solution? Those of us on the street attending St. Pius X took the regular commuter bus from the corner of our street to the train station in the heart of town where the regulation school bus would then collect us and complete the journey. I was the youngest of the bunch by several years.
The train station was mesmerizing with its dizzying array of gray-tinted men in their suits and ties and colorful women in matching knits and Pillbox hats, their hands artfully-fitted with designer gloves; all of them commuting into the city for adventures I was nowhere near able to comprehend.
Theoretically, I was lost from the moment I disembarked at the station, and it was only by remanding myself to sit squarely among the leather book bags left idling by the sixth graders (whose ritual it was to descend on the candy machine in between bus rides) that I did not float away entirely.
At least not until the day I spotted my first handlebar mustache.
There it was, strapped to the face of a bespectacled man by some invisible means. Half hiding in the blend of blue shadows cast from the rim of his equally unique Bowler hat, I could see the hard wax bonding of the long, black hairs as they extended in ornamental curls on either side of his face like the wings of a rare and noble bird.
How far I had wandered to take in this sight and how long it engaged me, I could not say. I knew only that when I returned to my safe haven; to where I'd last seen that field of brown leather book bags, there were no book bags.
Spurred on by the hard crush of fear, I stood on the sidewalk in front of the station and began to cry. I pictured myself an orphan wondering whom among the hurried, rush-hour throngs would become my new parents. It never occurred to me that I would be returned home.
My new mother arrived within minutes; her auburn hair bound in sections to massive pink rollers all swaddled in a bright, silk scarf. To me she appeared more comical than nurturing. But then, orphans can't be choosers.
While depositing my new father at the curb, she noticed my tears and came to my rescue. Because in my panic I could not recall more than my first name and a vague rendition of my last, she escorted me to the traffic cop at his nearby post by the stoplight.
I had nothing for him either. No return postage or known address. Nada.
However, the owner of the Gristedes' Market where my former mother did all of her shopping happened to notice this scene outside the store window. He recognized me and emerged bearing all those salient facts that I had deftly replaced with images of handlebar mustaches and bowler hats.
Within a half hour my former mother arrived with my former siblings in tow, and noting that she showed more relief than anger, I bid a fond farewell to my almost-new mother, who favored me with a kiss and a Tootsie Pop, and I left with the mother I knew best.
Getting lost is routine business for me. I get lost in my thoughts, my words, my art, my troubles, my affections and regularly, lost in my travels. But because for all these years I've always managed to survive the trek, my faith in the joy and necessity of exploration remains sound, and I am not afraid.
If you value what you've left behind, you will always find your way
back to it even when you don't remember how.
This is a fact; with or without Tootsie Pops.