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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.



The facades


of apartments, drug stores, supermarkets


and medical office buildings


are forever being altered.


Added to.


Improved upon.


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.


Pre-pandemic pedestrians


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


recently conducted


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

Philadelphia


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.


Priorities!


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


by experience.


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

get me


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


spooked me.


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

landscaping.


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

next door.


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.


I’ve conquered


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

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