I did my “roots” thing two summers ago and went back to my hometown to wander the tree-lined streets and relive old memories. That place was Bayside, Queens, Long Island, New York and when I grew up there it was still considered a small-ish town. It even had a few old potato fields. Bayside was where I twirled my baton as I led P.S. 41’s band in the Memorial Day Parade, where my Girl Scout troop marched to Fort Totten on the 4th of July and where I studied dance at Miss Mildred’s neighborhood ballet school.
Bayside is where dad mowed the lawn in summer, burned leaves in the fall (before toxic fumes) and shoveled the driveway in winter, while mom sewed my dance costumes, made cookies and grilled Velveeta cheese sandwiches on Wonder bread. And in spring, magically, the gardens of each lovely two-story home in my neighborhood burst with vivid colors of blossoming hydrangeas, irises and daffodils. But I knew at an early age I was going to be a city girl one day, because the city had its own magical “garden.”
I was five years old the first time my parents took me to Madison Square Garden. The first thing I remember was being terrified as we made our way down the steep steps to our seats high up in the blue section. The height was dizzying and the energy in the air overpowering and I was sure I was going to plunge to my death. But my father saved me from that terrible fate when he took my arm and guided me to my seat.
Suddenly the lights went out and terror gripped me once again. In the darkness a booming voice announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen and children of all ages, welcome to the greatest show on earth.”
The lights flashed back on and music blared as elephants and horses charged into the arena, led by the most colorful, sparkling, beautiful people I had ever seen. I was no longer afraid, for I knew, at that moment, that this was a magical building.
That magic took on a new meaning when, as a Bayside H.S. cheerleader, I cheered for my team in the race for the NYC basketball championship. Thousands of students, teachers and parents filled the seats for that first play-off game. And there I was, in the middle of the floor of Madison Square Garden, not lying dead in the center ring as I had envisioned on my first visit, but kicking and cartwheeling myself into a frenzy. The score was 55-55. With only a second to go, my boyfriend took the pass, glided into the air and let loose a long hook shot. The buzzer sounded and everyone held their breath as the ball hit the backboard, then circled the rim. Around and around it went, but I knew it was going to go in. This was my magical building. The moment was intoxicating.
I didn’t get to feel that rush again until a few years later when a friend invited me to see the Knicks “live” for the first time. When I entered the Garden arena, I once more felt that intense surge of energy, giving me a thrill I’ve felt nowhere else on earth. As the Knicks played, the crowd’s cheers and groans were deafening.
Soon after, I discovered the Rangers. Hockey drew a different crowd from basketball... more dark suits and club ties... but the energy was the same.
Whether basketball or hockey... Connecticut commuters, gamblers, Wall Street manipulators, society ladies or homeboys… all lifted their voices in joy and agony in the Garden... their cries bouncing off the walls like a million Spaulding balls. Cheers at Shea and Giants Stadium can’t compete with the reverberating sound of rabid fans in the Garden. It’s a magical building.
Back in Bayside after so many years - my hometown no longer had potato fields, and the local movie theater where I spent every Saturday watching cartoons, westerns and Audrey Hepburn movies, eating Dots and buttered pop corn is now a multi-plex. My favorite mom and pop pizza place has been replaced by Pizza Hut or Dominos or both. White Castle now has to compete with Burger King, McDonald’s and Wendy’s and most of the small family businesses in town have closed, no longer able to compete with the shopping malls. But nothing negated my happy memories.
This growth is happening all over America, but it won’t change who we are if we remember to water and nurture our children with their own joyous memories of gardens of cotton candy, clowns and basketball and we allow them to find their own magical “garden.”
And for disbelievers who say 'The Garden' is not the building, it’s the people in it, here’s one last tale… it was my first political convention as a press liaison. It was held in the Garden, and before the delegates were to arrive, I needed to check out the podium teleprompter. I left my office in the building’s bowels and walked into the arena. No one was there... not a workman, not a convention organizer, not a single secret service agent. I stood on the spot where Jimmy Carter would soon accept his party’s nomination for President, and as I looked around the expansive room, the air filled with exhilarating electricity. Suddenly I realized I wasn’t alone after all. The walls were alive. Bill Bradley and Rod Gilbert were there, Emmett Kelly was there and so was a “small” town cheerleader ready to spark her team on with new energy... we were all there, happy ghosts in the walls of the Garden.