The scream from the office down the hall filled us like a tsunami of words strung together painting horror a son a son a son found dead.
We all ran through fluorescent light down the linoleum hallway to grab hold tight the body trying to push her way into another reality where the voice snapping from her cell phone was making a big mistake a big mistake calling the wrong number someone else with the same name and same son but not her not hers.
Until the lease runs out and they're evicted so that a fancy something-or-other can move in, it's a thin, narrow bare bones waiting room that, past a crammed nurses-bill paying-file-getting corner, trickles into a small labyrinth of tiny rooms where patients pee into cups, bleed into tubes and whisper common complaints.
The old Italian lady, one tooth on the bottom, hobbles out of the trickle into the waiting room, her Dominican home attendant behind her. The Italian lady is from the old neighborhood that doesn't exist anymore. You can tell from her accent. And the comfortable way she bosses the home attendant around like she was a baby chicklet needing protection and guidance. "Sit here, no, not there, here, put the bag there..."
They get settled. W, a young Black man sits down. The Italian lady knows him from the waiting room and starts telling him about her current situation.
"I'm waiting for the ambulance, don't feel well. We're going to St. Vincent's."
The home attendant slips into a nap.
W nods concerned. The Italian lady continues.
W asks, "Did you have Easter Dinner?"
"Yeah. With Rosie. It's good company."
A tall White guy walks in. There are no more chairs. The nurse calls my name, asks, "You ready?"
The White guy looks at my chair, says. "You're on."
I gather up all my stuff, but not neatly. "I'm ready."
There are things you just can’t take back and as it pours out of you, your wails of NO don't reverse the seconds it took to make a decision...
... that night in 1993 to throw that shoe across the room, sobbing mad at the suicidal prison built from family misery but then watching the shoe shatter the only present you loved from your father a ceramic owl penny bank, a gift of beauty and care and poetry from a far away country bought at Macy's in 1967 a rare expression of his delight in you being his little girl your sobbing now howls trying to make time run backwards so that maybe like in the movies the owl would rise up from tiny pieces and bloom back into whole, you’d throw the shoe to another part of the room you promised…
... or that day in 1972 seconds after your friend got you to stop looking out the window of the front car of the F train, the decision that woman made, the train brakes screaming and her screaming the two of them screaming like an orchestra blasting the final notes of a really big symphony, did she as she watched herself unfurl her body into the tracks wish suddenly desperately her cries would become the wind that turns back time and brings her safely to the platform and another decision?
...and the swine... he is unclean unto you - Leviticus
It wasn't that we had to wear skirts during the High Holy Days even if we were on our way to music school and it was Shabbos to boot. For a brief time it was the special every-once-in-a-while treat of crispy bacon - the whole package - all mine that Florence would make me never on a Saturday, but always on a Sunday with the windows open. I loved it more than the once a week Hostess cupcake I got to have at my gramma's house.
"Hoy Hong makes the best pork buns in the city," my father would announce as we walked on Mott toward another once-in-a-while treat. I never questioned him how he knew that. He was all knowing and he knew Hoy Hong made the best pork buns. A steamed white cloud with something delectable inside. Almost like a Christmas present.
Stuffed into a paper wine bottle bag and dragged to JHS 56 on Henry Street a reluctant lunch was much too often a ham sandwich on dry Arnold white bread with an unappetizing apple lurking about for dessert, but I looked longingly at my classmates' exotic and (to me) rich people's food of peanut and jelly sandwiches on Wonder bread and extra stuff like pudding and cake and things that came already made from the supermarket. And soon after that I moved to a place where chocolate donuts were the norm and I got to eat as many peanut and jelly sandwiches as I wanted and soon after that I got a job and could order anything at any place I wanted.
But when the movie BABE came out and confirmed that pigs were smarter than dogs, all I wanted after watching it was bacon and sausage and then even more bacon.
It was a bad week, that week in 1965. In a rare moment of having the brief upper hand I had taken my sister's head and banged it quite hard against the baseboard of our sturdy couch. I was six. She was nine and a half. In a hour she was in bed crying differently than ever before and in a week she was in Beth Israel Hospital with spinal meningitis.
I knew it was my fault. I believe I tried to tell my parents that in fact I was the cause of my sister being at death's door with thousands of needles stuck in her spine. But Florence and our father, being destroyed human beings incapable of experiencing any more trauma than what they carried in their bones and souls and hearts let alone hear the anguished fears of a little kid may not have understood what I was trying to say.
During this time, an amazing invention heralding great luxury entered our home facing the Williamsburg Bridge. A dimmer for the living room "chandelier." It was not the ordinary light switch that went on for the piano students from the neighborhood and off when we were not in the room. It, like silk gowns in the movies we watched, ushered in light with elegance and grace.
I was given strict instructions by my father to never touch it. However, in a not so rare moment of refusing to follow orders I stood before that new knob one evening and decided to know the power of the dimming. My sister in the hospital, my father somewhere in the mysterious travel between work and home, and my mother, oddly enough, not in the living room at her piano, a place she spent more time in than in the embrace of anyone who loved her. I was alone and I was ready to go on tippy toes to fulfill my mission and satisfy my desire.
I gently turns the knob and the lights glowed. I gently turned it back and they faded and turned again and they glowed. It was better than music. It was magic and I glowed them again and then suddenly the room went black. Frozen in terror, I looked at the living room light. Not working. Then beyond the light, out the window, I saw worse. The bridge and the entire Lower East Side had gone black as well.
Florence came stomping back from where ever she had been and went to the building's hallway. Neighbors' voices filled the stairs. There were no lights anywhere and with this being November, our entire world became very, very quickly very, very dark. The horrifying truth faced me. My act of disobeying my father had broken the lights of New York City.
All the Shabbas candles came pouring out of all the apartments and lit the stair banisters into a magic fairyland, my father found his way home from some darken subway station or did he walk over the bridge that night? I can't remember. All I remember was being so scared of the dark, I clutched Florence's skirt and refused to let go until, needing to pee, she refused to let me into the bathroom with her. So I stood outside the bathroom door, in the pitch black, and slowly died inside from the knowledge that this was the fate of a destroyer - unloved and in the dark.
The next day or so my parents and I walked up to 15th Street and 2nd Avenue and waved up to my sister on the 9th or 17th floor of the hospital. She merrily waved back. Beth Israel had its own generator and she had been spared the dark.
Of course it was just a bunch of rats in some power station somewhere, my sister returned home well enough to continue being my sister, and nine months later a whole bunch of babies appeared on the street. And years after that I understood that my dimming and glowing the lights was just bad timing on my part and made for a great dinner story to friends who didn't grow up in New York City and were easily impressed.
But a few years after that, the internet was invented and someone introduced me to Google. The first thing I looked up was causes of spinal meningitis. And there, in very clear language, after bacterial and viral, were these words: "a traumatic injury to the head or spine."
Every corner, every block like being run over back and forth by a truck made with 32 years in this neighborhood of heartbreak and brilliantly stupid hope here is where he kissed me there is where she cursed at me here is where I ran away there is where we argued here is where I wept there is where I thought things were going to get better here is where in 1976 I bought the cheap high heels with borrowed money from Florence so I could look for office work because X. had just gotten stabbed to death and I didn't think I could go back to babysitting or bike messengering just needed a place to sit during the day and was willing to do it in nice clothes today trudging back from yet another attempt at brilliant stupid hope and hating each and every moment of cement.
The fake purple flowers, the soft gray tones, the rose accents pillows, the comfortable couches, a lovely meeting room, big flat screens, expensive stackable chairs, the best fluorescent lights money and funding can buy…
It's the Alzheimer Chapter's Tuesday night “How to Bath your Batty Mother-Father-Husband-Wife-Aunt-Sister” workshop! How to bath them without them freaking out, screaming, crying, wailing and punching the shit out of you.
The workshop facilitators start the workshop with a video. I never saw anyone like my mother before but here she is, appearing as a frightened and bewildered ancient skinny bald white guy with boney sticks for legs, a not-as-ancient-but-pretty old Black woman who is very Christian judging from the prayers she is crying out, a middle-aged plump, blond with a southern accent clutching a dolly begging to be left alone…
I see and hear Florence in their crying and screaming and flying fists and shouted fears, yelling they are being hurt and it’s cold and it’s wet and they don’t want to fall and…
I look around. The room is packed with lots of people who suddenly finds themselves not in the relationship they started out in years before. The faces are fierce and tired and the questions loaded and desperate.
**She took him on an expensive cruise he wouldn't shave should she try to shave him?
**Why did he stop playing the piano?
**He lies about bathing but won't let anyone in the bathroom with him.
**She is hiding soiled underwear and…
We are all clutching the remnants of someone as they slip out of our grasp and begin a plummet into insanity that only comes when something inside the head starts eating the brain for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"Lower your standards," the facilitators tell us.
Florence, once crisp in her chic pants she got for $2 at the flea market at Coney Island, a bit of silk flare around her neck, a jaunty man's jacket that made Hepburn look dull, her old Stride-Rite snappy heels… now in diapers and cheap $10 sweatpants that pill after only one wash.
I turn to the wall and bury myself in my workshop notes so no one sees me cry.
After tonight there will be no more baths. The baby wipes will do just fine.
There was a cat clock that wagged its tail and rolled its eyes to each ticking second. Very exotic compared to our bare-bones kitchen clock. The almost leather seats were burgundy-something. The so-called carpet was dusty and the lights were, of course, florescent. Only uptown stores where rich people shopped had real lights.
Kaplan's Shoes - on Clinton between Rivington and Stanton.
We went there for our once-a-year-(ugly)-pair-of-oxfords that wouldn't become hip and fashionable for another twenty years. In the interim, the meaner girls at P.S. 110 in their white go-go boots called me "baby shoes" which is devastating if you're only 8 and suddenly in the 4th grade with the bigger kids.
Florence's rule was whatever ugly oxford you picked at Kaplan's you had to wear out of the store. This showed commitment to the shoe you'd be with all year. And, since that and the sneakers from Sears & Roebucks were the only things we bought new, you had to really know if the shoe fit.
The pressure was tough. But those ugly oxfords were made so good and Mr. Kaplan's measurements were so precise, somehow everything worked out. Except for the part of looking like a dork from a-turn-of-the-century picture by Jacob Reis.
I spend the next forty years wearing shit that looks hot while avoiding any shoes stores that sold anything that was comfortable and good for your feet.
But there is a God and She does wear lots of shoes because ugly came back into style and was even hipper than hip, especially if the jeans were tight. It was perfect timing. My feet were old and unhappy. It was time to find a place where the oxfords were made so good and the measurements were so precise.
And when I walked into the dusty shoe store on 39th Street, it was just like being back home.
I say, "Fine. You don't want to get out of bed, then go lay down and die."
She yells, "Lie down! Lie down!"
I say, "You can't get out of bed, but you can still correct my grammar?"
She yells, "Yes! It matters!"
I yell, "THEN GET OUT OF BED!"
The Jonathan Schwartz show starts.
We settle in to listen.
I look at her butchered hair. That's because the week before I took the household scissors and chopped off big chunks of it. I did that because it was a huge halo of wildness, so thick and silver sparkling. Now it was a huge halo of wildness that got caught in a buzz saw.
Sinatra comes on. She sings along.
"My mama done told me... a woman is two faced... cry in the night..."
Knowing something of her dating history, I ask her if that's true.
She says, "I didn't make it up. That's what's written.
I start laughing. She asks why.
"You're singing with heart.”
Shrugs, "I'm just trying to get the words."
And then she - who broke many hearts of many old girls and garnered many angry love letters and hurtful looks across crowded dances put on by the local gay senior citizen group - she looks up and asks, "Is it true? A woman is two faced?"
Right past the ice cream sign. In a corner nobody can see in the new luncheonette now painted nice and white and cheerful. A splotch of brown.
That's what's left of the first luncheonette. Brown walls and moldings and red-brown stools...Aladdin's Cave, safe and dark, a passage way in to something rare and beautiful and dazzling.
We were allowed ice cream sodas once a year, sometimes twice if we performed at some big music school concert. But for the most part, once a year. Last day of school an ice cream soda. A celebration of surviving earnest young teachers with ideals and bitter old ones with rage and rulers, quizzes I could never study for, school projects I attempted to finish last minute in a midnight bathroom, classmates with newer clothes and meaner dispositions, and tougher kids in other classes really pissed off about things none of us ever decided for them but somehow ended up being responsible for.
I don't remember who was behind the counter or what flavors I picked. Or why it was an ice cream soda, not a sundae or even just a dish. Perhaps it was the lack of daily sodas in our lives. And a sundae was as foreign to my parents as the Episcopal church. I don't even remember liking my yearly soda or not. I just remembered entering, entering that soft safe brown and visiting briefly a place of utter beautiful dazzling, rare richness.
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.