The Phone Lady had regular rounds up and down Grand Street. Picking up each receiver of every public pay phone she'd start screaming into the receiver, screaming, screaming, like the Flood but no ark and nobody stopped her or asked her why or anything. We all just stood there and watched or walked by and watched. After her screaming, she'd take the receiver and repeatedly slammed it down, bang bash bash bash bang the battering of a parent unable to hold back a billion fists to an errant child who risks life to be itself, thrown against the wall by the parent who never did bang bash bash bash bang.
Then she'd walk to the next public pay phone.
A day or a couple of days later, the Ma Bell guy would quietly retrace her footsteps, like a social worker coming to soothe the abused, and gently fix each phone. And then a day or a week or a couple of hours later she'd return and it would all begin again.
Across from Greeley Square between the serious men's clothing store and the Dunkin Donut she is lying on the ground and there are a lot of people over her making sure her shopping bags are ok and so is her purse. There is a cup of something by her and the security guy or police chief or whatever he is, is talking into a walkie-talkie.
The two guys and me hang out on the curb by the flower pots and watch a skinny homeless guy shout at the crowd. He looks a bit like the guy who kicked me in the ass when I bumped into him once on a rainy day. Wouldn't be surprised if it were. This is his neighborhood.
The two guys said that she began to fall and the homeless guy caught her and was shouting get help get help and once non-homeless guys showed up and shooed him away he got upset. After all, he was there first and just because he was homeless didn't mean he was less of a hero.
The daily convoy of twenty-five blaring police cars roar up 6th Avenue. None stop.
"She fell. Her heart, her blood pressure or diabetic. They give her an orange juice with some sugar. Look, she is fine."
A third man joins us. His patter sounds like poems made of rain on a roof. When I ask if it is Arabic, his friend nods. "I speak Danish too. And Spanish and English and Arabic."
We look across the street at the woman again. Two ambulances come as she sits up and talks on her cell phone.
The guy says to me, "We are nothing. A heart, or something and we fall... we are nothing."
His accent still thick with the lower east side, he is no longer an anomaly in this senior restricted condominium. We saw many non-blond people at both malls.
Still, during his brief confinement, the hospital staff all spoke in Disney sing-song melodies to comfort and beguile his misery made worse by a mind beginning to leave real time.
While wondering how one could beg for sex passionately in such a Snow White voice, I marveled at the private room and the computer networks and the wireless equipment and the very polite sick people, quietly waiting their turn. There were no screaming addicts in his ER world.
Schneller lived on the 6th Floor. She still had her German accent but not her lips. Those she painted on like a Jackson Pollack. Which she did every day before taking her post late afternoon on a wobbly folding chair outside the building. Warm days only. Her hair was thinning and dyed something like inhuman red and she no longer had the shape of a person – it was more like a toad with tiny legs sticking out. The only rumor I ever heard about her was that the building had been in her family’s and that her lover had died when she was young and clearly she had never gotten over it. She rented several of the grand old apartments out as SROs, weekly linens included, to a gaggle of old men.
Tommy looked like Popeye, tough, butch, muscled and toothless, a cigarette dangling, and he guarded the building at night, hanging on the stoop, making sure the heroin addicts didn’t steal the lobby’s chandlers again. These were the crappy replacements of the real ones worth a lot probably sold for a bag or two.
Jimmy was Sinatra in a hat - if Sinatra couldn’t sing, was old, short and a fourth rate bookie. He coughed a lot. That’s when smoking was only a nasty habit.
Mr. Martinez studiously collected stamps, was very very short and very very gentle. He got beat up and ripped off a lot but we weren’t sure by who. He put a padlock on his room. But he said it didn’t help.
None of us spoke to Mr. Lee unless we had to.
The garbage was put out every night by our doors and picked up by Otis, a stooped six feet, dark Black man who lived in the basement and socialized with the middle-aged overweight blond hooker from 11th Street who couldn't decide if she was Ukrainian or Puerto Rican. Whether it was booze or not, he had reduced his life into a tiny moment of feeling no pain. There were many many walls of congeniality and smiling dumb even that night at 3am when I ran into him with his hooker friend. It was exactly like running into him picking up the nightly garbage.
Walter, light skinned and handsome chiseled to beat the band but crippled into a bonsai of his former self, rarely smiled. His face reminded me of a scholar who had seen too much and knew how little he knew. On all the major holidays in his best suit and hat, leaning on his cane he’d wait in the lobby for his daughter to pick him up. She rarely did. He lived in the basement with Otis.
One summer day the elevator broke after Schneller had taken her post. All us neighbors climbing up and down the evening stair coming from work going to dinner, had to make our way around Otis and Walter with his cane in hand pushing Schneller up the stairs by her butt as she clung to the banister.
She spent all day listening to other people go to the bathroom. Sitting in a quasi maid’s uniform, repeatedly offering paper towels in broken English that belied a sharpness and insight that only comes with starting life over at the age of 40 or 50 or 60.
Rather than deal with intelligence that could hear them in their most intimate moments she was summarily dismissed by the thousands of perkily dressed mid-western mid-management women wearing their versions of the power suit they snappily wore with a Fortune 500 smugness at their NY conference before returning home to bland garden apartments or studios temporarily furnished for a pre-marital life.
One even demanded to know what that smell was and at the risk of being complained about, she shrugged a fuck you lady shrug and said “It’s a bathroom….”
It is now many, many, many hours later. We finally get a stall.
And so begins again the repeated declaration of no I’m not taking off her clothes and yes she is going home tonight. Even when the supervisor of Dr. Hottie R comes over the decision is final. No. Florence is not staying overnight. We are going home. All the tests are fine – her heart, her lungs, her pressure, her blood. She is not staying in the hospital overnight.
One more test, they suggest. Maybe she has a urinary tract infection. Can you get her to pee? If not, we can easily catherize her.
Here’s what separates the men from the boys.
How many times have you seen your mother’s vagina and urethra and asshole? How intimate are you with the smells of those places on whatever parent you now wipe clean on a regular basis? How often do you make decisions about those places?
No. No catheters. She can’t integrate the pain it will be too upsetting. Let’s try the bedpan.
For a frail old lady, she is dense heavy bones to move and it takes two of us to slip the metal bedpan under her. An hour later a hopeful check only to find the pan is suctioned tight to her bottom. After prying it off in between her shouting “Ow Ow that hurts,” a small plastic one is slipped under instead.
Suddenly things get quiet and empty. As if New York decided to take a break from car accidents and sidewalk falls and life-threatening illness.
Singing a chapter from a Buddhist sutra lulls Florence into rest and relaxation and soon she is sleeping. What happens next, what happens next, what happens next, oh what happens next...
My heart breaks open, exhausted and sad I cry missing the company of someone who once lived with me, once loved me in a home we shared. I cry and I sing.
Dr. Hottie R. pops his head into the stall. “Anything?!” He is so cheerful about the possibility of pee.
“Don’t worry! It will happen!” His shift ends in a few minutes, but he wants to find out before he goes if in fact his diagnosis of a possible infection is correct.
I continue quiet singing. Florence sleeps. But grief wins and I put my head in my hands and I weep.
I hear Florence’s voice. “Laughing or crying?”
“Crying. I miss R.”
“I want you to feel better.”
But I can’t stop crying. Worn down, worn down, so exhausted from drumming up strength and support and fortitude. I am tired of being Shirley Temple and like a good little soldier marching along with a chirpy little song and a happy little tap. I am tired, almost 50 years old, and heartbroken.
My cousin once told me it was not the trumpets that brought down the walls of Jericho. It was the tears of the women.
Florence says, “I had to change in later years. Working.”
I look up. “Working? Like teaching piano working?”
“No,” she says. “Working on myself. Becoming equal to what I had wanted to do.”
A few hours ago she didn’t know my name or that I was her daughter. I was just the person she knew would always take care of her, rub her back, sing her songs, help her feel better, love her like a mommy loves her little girl. But suddenly in this quiet and still ER, someone else emerges. A person I only glimpsed bits of in 49 years of knocking on closed doors and waiting patiently under grand pianos hoping to see or hear or converse with.
Here, with shower-like curtains drawn around us, a moment of humanity and though I only met her a few time in my life I’d recognize her anywhere. From the midst of her disintegrating into wisps of childlike desperate need, she is suddenly my mother.
“I’m going to give you a drink!” she declares.
“Of what? Scotch?” It was what we drank together at an old bar in the village, never mind that I was still underage.
One of the addicts in the next stall is woken up. “We’re going to give you Narcon.” “No! No! I don’t want Narcon.” “Well did you take anything?” “NO! NO! I just fell asleep on the bench.” “Then why won’t you take Narcon?” “No! No!”
Florence and I look at each other like WOW. What was that?
She finally says, “Is there anything I can give you?”
“You’re giving me something right now. You’re listening to me.”
“Well.” She says with strength from decades ago. “I’m listening!”
I say, “I think this was one of our best visits ever.”
But she dismisses me. “Oh, I like the other one where you put all the….
I start to cry again. “I’m just sad.”
“When you say the word SAD, I can feel it. You always say you’re OK. Makes me think it’s….” Another word gone…
“But I am OK. But I’m sad.”
“Why don’t you go to a shrink? Get a minor….”
“Lover? I want to go home to R.”
“Start changing with R. Start changing the change of the different changes of the … the store.”
I sit up try to pry into her words what they could mean what they could represent like stepping back from the square of a quilt and seeing an entire portrait of a heart…
“… and then start out with what you have with starting with a different…” she is fading...
“What? Job? Attitude? Approach?”
“No. I was thinking it might not work this… What I can think of it that way is better…”
And then she starts to count.
“123. 456. 123. 456.”
And her portrait reveals….
“A different time signature?”
I now weep broken again, broken and broken open. My first decade as her pupil, learning notes and keys and rhythms and time signatures. The beats within two bars. The measure of each note. The pulse within the walls of a home. I weep.
“You look awful.”
We are interrupted. Another addict, furious at the treatment he was offered but refused to take because it didn’t include the pain killers he wanted screams at the doctor who has told him to leave the ER, “I HOPE YOUR CHILDREN ARE ALL FAGGOTS AND THEY DIE OF AIDS.”
It is now eight hours since we’ve arrived at the ER. The night nurse comes in and we find that all the apple juice we plied on Florence was happily peed out - not into the little plastic tub, but instead all over the sheets, the pads the blanket, the bed. There is nothing left to do but catherize her.
I hold Florence’s hand and sing her songs from old musicals and we all find out she has a urinary tract infection which is one reason she couldn’t get out of bed for the last couple of months. A prescription is called in to the 24 hour pharmacy, a private ambulance is called to take us home and two Amazons, with no effort whatsoever, move Florence from bed to stretcher and from stretcher into ambulance. I quickly kill the roach running around the back but Florence somehow sees it. "Was that a roach?!"
It is now 10:50pm and we are in her home lobby trying to get her from the stretcher into the wheelchair. Florence utterly befuddled stares up at the taller Amazon in childlike wonder. Without thinking I blurt out, “Florence! It’s your dream come true! You're in the arms of a beautiful woman.”
We can’t all fit in the tiny elevator. “They are going to take you up in the elevator and I'm going to take the stairs and meet you up on the 5th floor.”
Florence’s face crumbles. “But I want to go with you …”
Both Amazons go “AAAAWWWWWWW….” I run up 5 flights of stairs and all four of us, the two Amazon, P. and me manage to get Florence out of sheets and wheelchair and confusion to face her bed. When Florence sees it for the first time, her face lights up like a child opening a present. “OH!” The taller Amazon scoops up Florence in her arms like a prince to his princess or a groom to his bride. Or a really strong woman to a frail old lady and she gently places Florence in bed. P. and I cover her up. Florence is finally home.
The corner is now just one big nail salon filled with many women and a few men taking their manicures very seriously.
But then - the long long time ago then - it was two stores - a laundry mat with the guy who did everything with his right hand, the left never leaving his pocket, and next door the tiny, narrow, dusty, chaotic shoemaker shop.
The 2nd Avenue Shoemaker was maybe in his 50s, from Turkey and every Friday night he closed the shop and put out a little feast for several of us tenants - the cat-like set designer who moved to Hollywood soon after and rumor had it became famous, the biggish 50 or 60-ish booming voice character actor from the second floor who lived with his nephew (which made everyone laugh but I think he was actually his nephew), and me, recently kicked out into a new life, wearing heels for miles thinking it made me a woman.
Behind the half closed gate we would crowd in and listen to the shoemaker, on a violin more beat-up than his wooden counter, play the only thing he knew - The Beggar from Istanbul. Over and over and over again and we would nod along, laugh, eat all his olives, maybe some salami or cheese, drink all his wine and get tipsy. A perfect way to end the week of my first of many low-paying clerical jobs. I'd sit like a 1940's movie star in my high heels, smoking my Dunhills, sipping wine and hoping no one noticed I was eating most of the salami because it was a great meal I could afford. Tolerance of bad violin playing for free food and booze.
The late 80's came and with it the end of the laundry mat and the Shoemaker. Like most young people, I didn't quite understand the profundity of end, over, death and it's never coming back again - the irreversibility of things. I still thought one day it would get better be better stay the same not erase familiar home. I thought there was time and the reclaiming of things lost still a possibility.
Me and the Russian refugee assistant who worked for the 12th Street Shoemaker both went down the street to the competition - Mr. Fontana's across the street from the St. Marks church.
With a shop much bigger than 12th Street, but equally dusty and chaotic, Mr. Fontana was much more selective. The 2nd Avenue Shoemaker would fix anything for a couple of bucks, but Mr. Fontana didn't hesitate to fling the item back at you and say, "No. Too cheap. I don't do that." Or something like that because his accent was a mix of New Jersey, Queens and Italy and with the machines running all I could understand was if I wanted his repairs I'd need to upgrade the quality of my footwear.
If you didn't pick up your shoes in time Mr. Fontana would wait a while - like a year or a couple of months and then he'd sell them. I went in there regularly asking if anyone in my size had been negligent. After two pairs of ankle boots made of Italian leather, worth hundreds and sold to me for weekly grocery money, it was a necessity to ensure my upgrades were affordable. The best purchase: two Armani wing-tips for the man I loved for a total of $50 or $75. Down from $700. Great deal. When the man I loved wore them he took my breath away.
Then the neighborhood, like a car crash in sudden slow-motion, became exclusive, filled with rich people dressing like how we dressed in the 70's when we were poor, only their clothes were much better quality and cost much much more than the $2 overcoat I bought off of Henry in 1977 when his neighbor the old man died and they found 13 black overcoats and were just going to throw them out until Henry took them and sold them to everyone in the bar.
Watching versions of my old coat now selling for hundreds of dollars and being worn by young people who never seem to have to go to a job I would look at Mr. Fontana's shop and feel for a brief moment nothing erased, something still not lost, and now heartbreakingly understanding the profundity of death and dying, I'd stand there and hope the shop would last longer then I did so that I could age and face my own mortality in some familiar setting.
The one time I got up enough nerve and asked to take a picture in Mr. Fontana's shop, the batteries died after the second snap.
I beat the ambulance to the ER. P. jumps out and shrugs, "She's fine. Cursed me all the way up." Knew Florence would be OK but good to do it by the book.
The ER is packed with a lot of old people ranging from normal old sick stuff to normal old dying stuff. We're parked in a corridor. P. splits back to the apartment. Good chance to catch up on the incontinence laundry pile. I do my "look in eyes, shake hands" with both ambulance drivers just in case we run into them again. They recount the various comments Florence made on the way up. Judging from their attempts at diplomacy, it is clear she's an anomaly in the "pick-up sick old lady" department.
Hospital Rule Number One - with an old person who is less and less mobile and spent the last month in bed refusing to do anything except pretend to sleep, awake, and listen to the radio among other miscellaneous acts of life, do everything you can to keep their clothes on no matter what hospital personal request. Just say no.
Say "Pull up her shirt and hook her up to the EKG that way."
Say "You don't need her in a gown for the X-Ray. because doesn't it just goes through the clothes?"
Say "She is not being checked into the hospital I'm in charge of my mother's care we are going home so I'm not putting her in a gown." Don't say that out loud. Yet. But be prepared to say that a hundred times later.
For the meantime, just refuse to take off her clothes because you know it will be impossible to get them back on.
The X-ray technician asks, "Are you related?"
Because I rarely call Florence "Mom", lots of times I'm mistaken for the home attendant.
A couple of hours later, we're moved to a better and much less drafty part of the corridor because the stalls are still packed. A crazy old man, a nostalgic picture of the 1980s streets when Reagan cut funding and the mentally ill poured homeless onto the streets, is wheeled in on a chair. He is handcuffed. As he passes it sounds like he is screaming "Stupid Spirit!" which I think is a pretty imaginative curse. One of the women cops corrects me. "Stupid fill in any ethnicity you want..." We listen to him scream for the next hour or so the following:
"You fucking Nazi."
"You fucking Spic."
"Why am I handcuffed?"
"Get these fucking handcuffs off me."
"Nazi, Nazi, Nazi, Nazi Hospital. I didn't want to come here."
In between the screaming, Mr. C. tries to draw Florence's blood. But people keep going back and forth with stretchers. So he has to step out of the way. He doesn't get much. I sing musical numbers to her as he takes another stab at it.
The screaming old man must have been moved or sedated. The EMS/NYPD folk are heading out. The really cute firefighter says to the other really cute firefighter, "What do I know? I'm just a stupid Spic." The woman cop complains to her partner, "I don't wanna leave my handcuffs here."
Dr. Hottie R. is young and cute, moves like a jockey - that small butch in command mojo move - you can tell he's going to be a great doctor. He asks Florence, "Are you home?" Florence says, "Well, I'll call it home..."
I have been holding her hand during everything. My nose itches and I scratch it and smell her urine. Find a hand-sanitizer dispenser and clean both of our hands. Florence asks, "Have you ever taken care of anyone like this before?"
He's short, noticeably short, almost like a jockey but with the girth and waggle of a pit bull. Dashing mustache - salt and pepper. He always seems to be wearing matching Bermuda shorts and guayabara and even when he isn't, he looks like he wants to. In colder weather a windbreaker and a cap. He carries either a shopping bag or, if it is a busy busy day, a big, black plastic garbage bag and he goes to all the drug treatment centers and methadone clinics, hidden away on third and fourth and seventh floors of garment district buildings that still haven't upgraded to a better clientele, and he collects all the urine samples and specimens needing to be tested for drugs and disease and occasional health.
So fast emptying locked fridges and tin medical boxes, never caught the act, always seen after the fact usually as he slips into the elevator his shopping bag fuller and fuller of little capped bottles of many people's pee.
It was much more proletarian. Whatever you needed - service or clothes - it was there and it was affordable. On the rare occasion something new was about to be purchased we would don our clean and neat apparel and take the IND to Herald Square.
Unlike the spectacle of today, the Macy's then was florescent lights and huge long floors filled with circular racks that spun around like those little pinwheels kids used to play with before video games came around.
Buying new was so significant an event my sister and I both remember the dresses one year we were allowed to choose. Mostly we were sent off to find the loose rubber bands that were discarded by the sales ladies. Florence always needed rubber bands and this was an efficient method of procuring them. Once found, we were then allowed to sit under the racks and in lieu of gum which was "bad for us", chew a couple of our newly found rubber bands while we waited for nothing new to be purchased.
The day was unusual – a bright clean something in the air – not spring. It was February.
It takes an army to get an old person who can’t walk or breathe to the car service that only gives you three minutes to get to the corner of Broome and Columbia. And when you get there they insist you were told one minute. But they wait anyways because sunny, clear days that are not too cold are slow. All the old people who can walk take the bus then.
When I greet these car service guys I smile a lot - the smile of isn't she cute this little old lady practically toppling over and dying in my arms and I'm only 3 inches taller than her and clearly I'm her daughter just look at the cheekbones and we even still dress alike parka, beret, sneakers look how much I'm caring for my old mother aren't we a sympathetic sight?
I do this so they lighten up about it taking us more than three minutes and maybe even will be good natured about waiting at the Curb of Insanity at Beth Israel's outpatient facility while I dodge a billion other car services and Access-A-Ride vans to run in and find a wheelchair to bring out to the car.
For the most part these are the men you want in an crisis or in your family, that is if you are willing to live very traditionally. These men are the real fathers I'd hear my classmates at PS 110 talk about.
This car service guy zips left to Delancey. At the red light, Florence reads aloud all the signs in the window of the last remaining Spanish-Chinese restaurant in the city. "Apolo. Restaurant. Lunch Specials. 8.95. That's expensive."
First Avenue mid-day traffic opens up like an empty Sunday, the arms of someone big who says gimme a hug, the wide boulevard of another city maybe in Europe, the buildings suddenly with character, not tarted-up tenements with $2000 a month rent for a studio.
“The day is beautiful” she says.
“Yeah,” I agree. “Look at those trees.”
She abruptly dismisses me. "I’m not interested in nature!"
Packed weekend sidewalk filled with thin beautiful young people with Ph.Ds in looking too cool for fuck. The 20-something kid in a pork pie hat walking and talking like an expert, points back to the little candy shop and speaks smugly into his friend's very expensive video camera. "What's an egg cream? Where's the egg? How come they call it an egg cream if there's no egg? I don't know." He acts like his not knowing is the candy store's problem. Not his.
That candy shop on Avenue A was the only thing open at night for twenty, thirty years when A was the dividing line between walking home to Grand Street or being a junkie and/or too poor to move away. Those egg creams were sometimes better than love. Sometimes, they still are.
MY PRIVATE CONEY presents IT WAS HER NEW YORK, the short stories that accompany the work-in-progress video and photo collection of the same name (myprivateconey.com - media link - IT WAS HER NEW YORK). The stories and the media explore the tender rubble that holds both my mother, Florence's and New York's soul as one disappears into old age and the other into gentrification. All are real observations and/or experiences with very little tall-tale telling.
Except when it makes the story better.
Please visit myprivateconey.com for additional information and sample works.