We were at the cable car turn around on Powell Street, watching as the rattling box car lurched to a stop.
“See?” she said, “See? It’s going to move. It’s going to happen.”
One cable car worker pushed and one pulled and the creaking, grinding carriage began to spin on the wooden turn-around disk. In just a few moments, it was straight again, pointing north and accepting riders, ready to groan up the street and wobble merrily out of view.
Emme dropped to a knee and pointed.
“There,” she began, “Can you see it? That’s how it moves!”
Emme explained how the cable car works, as if she didn’t learn it from me, or, more likely, maybe thought I had simply forgotten in my dotage. The cable, she said, runs under the street and giant pincers, very much like a set of pliers, reach down from the car and grab the cable, pulling the ancient bulwarks along the tracks.
“Can you see how they grab? And when you want to stop … you let go!”
She paused. Her eyes crinkled in thought.
“But I imagine there are probably brakes, too.”
She planted her feet on the red bricks of the plaza until the car lumbered away toward Union Square and began to climb the hills.
She sighed, “I wish we could ride one someday.”
“Seriously?” I asked.
She misunderstood my smile and offered one herself, her eyes brightening and her hands clasped.
“Are we riding today, daddy? Is that it? Is today the day?”
“Is today the day? What are you talking about?”
Her eyes were no longer bright.
“What are you talking about?”
She waited, hands on hip, while I scratched my head, wondering how that was even possible — to remember everything about the archaic, greasy meat of these clanging wheezeboxes and not recall a single trip? Does she not remember, I wondered, living a block away from the Hyde Street Line and hopping on every passing cable car to avoid walking up the hills? Does she not remember the whisper of bells ding-dinging their way into our living room or clanging past us on the sidewalks?
I thought of all the trips we used to take, our hands joined on the polished wooden benches and how we laughed on the precarious downslopes as gravity squished us together or pressed us against visitors from Germany or Japan.
“Here we go!” she’d giggle at the top of the slopes, “Hold on, everyone!”
She’d squeeze my hand and throw her head back and laugh, and I remember at the time thinking I would never forget these moments, but knowing full well they’d be lost on her years hence, swept away by that fog of childhood — all these memories clinging to her DNA and making her who she is and who she will become but out of reach somehow, warbling in some echo chamber forgotten by the cruelty of growth.
But not even one?
The thought of it reminded me of all the millions of words she once played with and eventually mastered.
“I’d like a hamburg,” she’d say at restaurants, “With grill yun yuns.”
“I’m sorry,” I’d say, “I didn’t catch that last part.”
“It’s loud in here, I just can’t understand, can you tell me again?”
“Yun yuns!” she’d scream, “Yun yuns! I’d like a hamburg with grill yun yuns!”
As a child who was mercilessly hounded into explaining everything I knew about blicks and blidges, you’d think I’d show some restraint, but I knew deep down it was a phase, a phase that would vanish and that someday she’d get it right and those traces of early childhood would disappear.
There was the time her grandparents went off to gamble in “Las Spetzias.” Dana and I still have no idea how Vegas morphed into that, but you can bet we spent a solid year asking the poor child to remind us where grandma and grandpa went off for vacation that one time.
“Somewhere in the desert? Nevada maybe? I don’t know ….”
“Geez, you guys — it was Las Spetzias!”
“Hmm, no. Where again?”
So many of these words were lost, mastered. She still slips on her “baling suit” for swim class, but it’s one of the last ones and someday, possibly soon, I know she’ll get it right.
Another cable car creaked into the turn around. Tourists grew antsy in line. A man on a white bucket began to play an amped harmonica. Emme had stopped pestering me about a ride and stooped to explain it all again, as if I had forgotten.
She’s 5, approaching 6. Some of these days will stick now, I think to myself, some of these tiny, innocuous moments will materialize through the ether and go with her. I stoop and put my arm around her shoulders and listen to her rattle on and feel the heat of her through her shirt and feel the breeze and hear the harmonica and listen to the ding-ding-ding of the cable car as it tinkers up the hill, and I wonder if this is one of them.
“I’m hungry,” I tell her.
“Can we get a hamburger?”
She grabs my hand and we begin to swing our arms.
“With grilled onions?”