Saturday, January 29, 2011

Look out, up in the sky!

Somewhere at or near the bottom of a plastic bin in the 10 by 10 storage unit where the remnants of much of my life are kept is a brown paper bag with two magazines in it.

Both magazines are New Yorkers, and they have the same cover, and the same date. Only one thing is different between them.

Two things, actually. One has the white rectangular mailing sticker on the cover, the other is a newsstand copy.

Which brings me to the Challenger disaster, whose 25th anniversary was yesterday. I must admit I was surprised by the air of celebration surrounding the anniversary of such a sad occasion. But I digress.

Ironically I was in a bank getting a free "financial consultation" when news of the explosion broke over the radio. I say ironically because my finances have been such a disaster over the years, although hardly a disaster along the lines of the Challenger. Nevertheless. I was working at the New York Daily News at the time, the evening shift, I think it was four to eleven p.m. or thereabouts.

Shortly before our "lunch" break a story broke on the Associated Press wire, one of the many "sidebars" related to the Challenger disaster, that the New Yorker, which had already gone to press, was recalling its latest edition because of a cartoon that might be deemed insensitive in light of the exploding shuttle. The article noted that some newsstand copies had already been delivered but subscription copies had not yet gone out.

So on my lunch break I raced from the Daily News building to the State News indoor newsstand on 44th Street and Second Avenue, and bought a copy of the New Yorker. Sure enough, there was the cartoon, somewhere inside. It showed two men sitting at a bar, not an infrequent theme of a New Yorker cartoon.

On the mission following the Challenger flight, I should note, a U.S. Congressman, Rep. Jake Garn of Utah, was schedule to take part. After the Challenger exploded, it was decided to scrub him from the next mission.

So the cartoon in the New Yorker shows two men sitting at a bar. One bar patron says to the other, "I wish they'd send my Congressman into space."

Pretty funny, huh? I can think of several Congressmen I'd like to see sent into space today, along with numerous members of the Tea Party. But I digress. When my subscription issue arrived, there was the same cartoon with the same two men sitting at the bar. Only the caption was different. I forget what the caption was, but it contained no reference either to space or to Congress.

Whenever the Challenger disaster is mentioned, however, my brain goes like one of those two-faced theater posters, one showing a face with a broad smile, the other an equally broad frown.

The sad story is about my mother, Jean Elson. My mother ran a school bus company, and at one point had a modest size fleet of buses. She bought a small garage in Harlem that had one enclosed bay, a cluttered office and some storage space on the second level, and a small lot next door. She also had a larger lot that she rented elsewhere in Harlem, I believe it was a former city bus depot, just off the Harlem River Drive.

The small lot was on 122nd Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues. Although she had her office in the upstairs area, most of the mechanical work on her school buses and vans was done at the larger lot. So she rented out the working bay to a fellow who somehow never quite paid her any rent, but she had an old Lincoln Continental that he hoisted on the bay and kept there for several months, if I remember correctly, promising to fix it.

Although this mechanic was something of a deadbeat, he had a son who was an astronaut.

My mother finally gave up on trying to collect any rent and the mechanic finally disappeared, with the Continental still hoisted over the bay. A few months later, suffering from severe financial problems, my mother sold the garage for a fraction of its value, which wasn't all that high to begin with. I'm not sure if it was a week after she sold the garage or a month, but it wasn't long before the Challenger exploded and, well, you know how the media is, somebody sniffed out the fact that Ron McNair, the first African-American astronaut and a member of the Challenger crew, may have been estranged from his father, but his father had a garage in Harlem.

Today that garage is, the last I read about it, a $2 million educational park, and, correct me if I'm wrong, that stretch of 122nd Street has been renamed Ron McNair Street. I try to close my eyes whenever I'm driving up Third Avenue and pass 122nd Street, and I cringe whenever I hear mention of the Challenger disaster.

In the theater, perhaps, the two masks are equal, but I would have to say when the Challenger disaster comes up, the frown kind of outweighs the smile.