Skittish about Scaffolding
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
By Naomi Serviss / New York City
Manhattan scaffolding gives me the willies.
Ubiquitous urban eyesores scar
block after block of the Upper West Side
with threatening overhead wood platforms
and crisscrossing metal beams.
of apartments, drug stores, supermarkets
and medical office buildings
are forever being altered.
Urban infrastructure for the infrastructure!
My nervous reflexes get pumped dodging
dangerous sidewalk bikers,
skateboarders, strollers with babies and dogs,
not to mention
unbagged dog detritus.
Mostly I worry stuff will fall on my head.
threaded through scaffolding detours
and midtown tourist swarms
like running backs
sprinting for touchdown.
People have trod around
carved up sidewalks and makeshift walking lanes
five inches from oncoming traffic.
Dodging delivery dollies
teeming with boxes of online shopping
is my terrifying daily dance with death.
That is not an exaggeration.
Scaffolding can be up for years.
One Upper West Side neighborhood contingent of tenants
a mock 15th (!) anniversary for a sidewalk shed.
They chanted in unison:
“15 years is way too long
No excuse, it’s just plain wrong!”
Local politicians offered their two cents plain.
The shed remains.
These omnipresent, shaky hazards
have triggered me
for the past 11 years.
It’s not really about the scaffolding.
I was a fearful and worried kid.
Not of bugs or monsters under the bed.
But of the world collapsing.
Everything falling apart.
Not your typical kid concern.
My single mother of five moved us
in and out of
shoddy apartments seven or eight times
within the fancy Elkins Park suburb of
throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Sometimes at night.
Reasons for the mysterious moves
were vaguely money-related.
As in, she didn’t have enough
for the month’s rent.
But always had color television.
My mother expertly tap-danced her way out
of bill collector phone calls.
Or had one of us kids do it for pity points.
One time she coerced me into speaking
with the county sheriff,
pleading not to evict us.
I broke down in tears after hanging up.
Packing and moving so often unmoored me.
My mother would joke:
“We’re wandering Jews, right?”
It was never funny.
Abandonment worries were seeded
Like the time I was seven and attended
free summer day camp at Wall Park.
Every weekday from 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Underprivileged Elkins Park kids gathered
in an expansive playground field
near the Yorktown movie theater.
All the art supplies I’d ever dreamed of were available.
Clay, markers, watercolors, plaster of Paris
for red rubber molds that would dry
in the July sun.
The playground had swings
near the creek
and a towering metal slide
that burned hot in the blazing sun.
Tennis courts beckoned and I learned how to play.
Sometimes a bus drove us
to Cheltenham High School’s indoor swimming pool,
where I learned how to swim.
The Friday my sister forgot to
is a technicolor memory.
One by one my campmates were collected.
After an hour, I walked home.
I was seven.
Crossing a busy four-way intersection at Old York Road
I nearly lost my balance, but made it home
taking pride in my accomplishment.
Never fully trusted my sister again.
I tried not to get attached
to neighborhood friends,
but that was against my gregarious nature.
So close ties were fleeting until
school established a coveted routine.
Until the next move and a different school.
When we lived in Colonial Apartments,
across from the Elkins Park train station,
I was about eight.
The homely three-story brick structure
seemed out of place
in a neighborhood of obvious wealth.
Houses had massive porches and lush
The front door of Colonial Apartments
opened onto a cramped and pungent entryway.
Mailboxes lined the right side of the hall.
A built-in dumbwaiter hid behind
a squeaky wooden door.
It was hand-operated by pulling hard
on a thick rope.
Simultaneously mysterious and frightening.
Our apartment was a flight up.
The sprawling two-bedroom had
a front hallway that was
long, dark and cheaply carpeted.
Walls were so thin, I could almost smell
the alcoholic breath of the
violent middle-aged raging alcoholics
Sometimes we had no heat.
My mother would turn on the gas oven
and open its door for the warmth.
My sister and I shared a bedroom
off another long hallway.
A shelf above my bed held mysterious boxes.
They always worried me.
One night I startled awake,
pulse racing and heart beating fast,
convinced the overweight shelf would collapse
on me while I was asleep.
I was inconsolable
until my sister said nothing bad would happen
if I slept the other way around.
My feet would be under the shelf, not my head.
That’s where my habit
of sleeping curled up like a cat began.
I was a thumbsucker until I hit double digits.
I worried about the planet
and all the animals, then as now.
Stability was not a given in my family.
My mother’s latest boyfriend, Tony,
was a barber who played guitar.
His side hustle was hypnosis.
One time he read me a bedtime story.
Gnawing consistently was a gut feeling
the world was going to end
in fiery flame.
The world was going to implode.
My first panic attack!
Fortunately, my coping skills have improved
across the board.
my inner Chicken Little and can reflect
on negative memories
without feeling emotional.
The scaffolding doesn’t threaten me anymore.
Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including BroadwayWorld.com