2003 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Nonfiction: Fireboat by Maira Kalman

FireboatI am what I am (and Popeye ends right there with a succinct pop, but I have been asked to go on though I admire brevity above all else and often say the less said the better unless you have a lot to say which is fine it just better be interesting) — I am what I am because my grandmother who was always damp from perspiration washed clothes in the river Slutch near a wild wood. Because in the wild wood there were wild berries which my mother with her wild blue hair picked with her older fluttering-eyed sister and two brothers all four full of clarity and sharp vision sharp beaky noses sharp eyes stinging tongues. Because my grandfather left his family in 1931 and sailed away on a boat whose name no one can recall and because he sent for them in 1933 when the quotas allowed them to come and because they were not annihilated when their village was razed by Nazis and because my mother ate an orange on the boat called the Polania carrying 1000 people or maybe a little less to their new land not yet an official country which was all pink and yellow and sandy and hot and hot and because my mother wore white organza dresses and cared about dresses but didn't care but wore them in cafes where tango music played and people sat under fluttering awnings wearing linen and cotton pique and because my only and older sister was tall and skinny and was an artist both gangly and beautiful all akimbo and liked to wear kimonos and because my father I am sorry to say was slightly crazy but perhaps not in the good way I am sorry to say because he fell off the second-floor window ledge of our apartment in Tel Aviv and he actually bounced and was totally unhurt and because he moved us for various business reasons to a new place a distant land and because the plane ride took twenty-four hours and the men wore gray suits and drank scotch and then a bumping of sorts and then a gray blue hard city where hamburgers and onions were frying on griddles filling the city with the most delicious smell. Because I drank Coca-Cola most celebratorily and especially because a large TV was brought into the apartment of the Hotel Monterey where we lived and we sat on the floor watching it forever with no one saying you shouldn't or you mustn't and because the dust in the air floated in the sun over very delicate and fragile furniture and because I was sure that if you got too close to the windows you would get sucked out and die.

We left the city. There followed a bucolic suburban life of piano lessons and dancing lessons and looking out the window onto the Henry Hudson Parkway and counting how many red cars, how many blue cars, how many green cars, and how many yellow cars. I am not sure if I counted the black cars, but perhaps I did. The evenings were slow and people were well groomed. Then I worked hardest on my penmanship. My true passion a blue or maroon Parker ballpoint pen and spelling everything right. Then a man from India visited us. Very chic. Very elegant. And the apartment was filled with light and it was less dangerous to get near the windows and we bought a Grundig stereo from Germany rescinding the emphatic and heart-stopping forbiddance by my father of buying anything German because his lullaby to me was Never Again and you can't ignore that growing up. And other things happened. We got a letter every week from my aunt in Tel Aviv telling us about the daily life that we were not part of but part of. And being an outsider definitely an outsider but not sad or ashamed. Just askew and also confident. Then my mother took me to the library and it seems we started at A and just went through and my ballet teacher had a fat braid and she had a skinny man in a black suit who was her music maestro and maybe her lover and Judy who was my friend had red hair and a beautiful nose not like my nose but a beautiful nose. We bought madras outfits at the Fashion Barn on Johnson Avenue not far from an Italian restaurant with live lobsters in the window which prompted me recently to imagine that if Jane Austen had gone to my junior high school she would have been my best friend and would have said "Maira that is such a great madras outfit. Did you get it at the Fashion Barn?" And then she would help me diagram those sentences like twigs with branches which seemed crazy to me and she would have been patient and even smiled at my monkeyness. Happy-go-lucky monkeyness with a velvet lining of breaking heart.

Now I say that the curious and dreamy road that led me to do the work I do is completely inexplicable. Maybe if I were to tell you the truth I could say I had an inkling of something going on that might lead to something. Some book could be written. Some thing could be made. Intangible. Elusive dreaming.

Now it is now.

I began to write this and draw that and found that comedy came naturally to me. Absurdity made complete sense. The absurd is one step away from the tragic. Everyone knows that. Life is episodic. A series of digressions. A determination not to be bored. I am always in rapture over the benign mistakes and serendipities and nutty goings-on of life. The peculiar and the particular. But that is not because I want to make fun of people, but because I think people are completely heroic and monumentally brave. And I love people with a great and passionate love. And I am an optimist but I am from the "something terrible is going to happen any minute" tribe.

And then something terrible does happen. And did happen. A cataclysmic event that will not subside. I said I would not write the book I ended up writing because it was not my domain. But the people who own the boat told me their story and I found a way to tell it. It began in 1931 in New York City. For me, New York City was, is, and always will be the epicenter of energy on planet earth. I wrote the book on the subway. And I had to give up the old tricks. It was important not to digress. Not to kid around. Not to be flip or facile. Not to be saccharine. Not to be simple-mindedly patriotic. Not to tell a child or adult this or this or this is what you should do. Just to tell the story and to show that of course terrible things will happen in this world. Then you go on. I don't know how you go on or even why you do. But you do. You don't have to be nicer. You don't have to have good penmanship. The only thing that you can do is be more yourself, whatever that is. To live life as much as you can. I have a heaviness in my heart that won't go away. But because of this city and these people and this smartness I am filled with pride. Or optimism. Or blind faith. Or strange and jumpy funniness. The people on the John J. Harvey who fought the fires of 9/11 are the kind of people you want to know.

They are pragmatic and romantic and humble and brave. They generously shared their story with me and I am grateful to them. The immensity of the impact that 9/11 will have on us keeps unfolding. Where we will end up is a profound mystery. I hope that if I don't get sucked out of a window, I will be writing and painting about the particular and peculiar, the silly events and splendid people and sublime life that I will encounter on my daily travels.

—Maira Kalman

Horn Book
Horn Book

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