Sometimes he gets up on the desk by the fax machine, leans over the cubicle wall and checks to see if I'm OK, and if I am OK, willing to say hello without being sarcastic.
That day she wanted to know what he was doing, who he was talking to, what he was looking at.
So during a busy afternoon of many clients attempting clean and sober, and full urine cups checking to see if they did, Constance climbed up onto the desk too, and she and YaYa, old friends and long-time colleagues, got a little visit in. I just took pictures.
There are people in that neon ball of lights and metal being bounced with atomic force into the stratosphere. The screams ricochet AAAARRR as it CRASHES almost to the ground and then aaaaaaarrrr as it is FLUNG into the sky again.
We stand there wondering if we should risk our $150 dinner on complete surrender to a force greater than ourselves. Instead we choose the slot machine where we get to keep our dinner but not our pennies.
B. told us. Of course none of us believed her. But she insisted. She had it on good authority and could even prove it to us.
So we all trooped off to the Children's Section of the Seward Park Library on East Broadway where the librarian nodded gravely at B.'s request and then guided us to a little bookcase we had never really paid attention to before. And there she pulled out a big enough picture book with big enough pictures called How Babies Are Made.
The sudden information that not only did our fathers have one of those but that they did that with our mothers was numbingly shocking.
I took an elevator ride to a reprieve from worrying and calling and emailing and strategizing is the eye infected can we get her out of bed what about the air conditioner where can we leave some sense of control does it even matter.
A young hand stopped the elevator door from closing and the two women entered, a home attendant puzzled by a voice mail on her cell and the other a tiny little old lady dandelion obviously loved enough to be dressed well and smell clean. The little dandelion leaned on her walker. I smiled at her. I smiled because I knew how few people did because old age is what cancer used to be - if you don't look it in the eye it will never happen to you. Such loneliness, such loneliness. To be and not be seen.
I was going to 9 and they got off 6 or 7 the home attendant guiding the little dandelion out. But once in the hallway the dandelion started pushing her walker back into the elevator her face befuddled frightened trying to get some place important. The door closing, I heard the young home attendant.
"Florence. Florence. This way. It's this way home."
Now, Today, These Days: The hallway leading to the roach apartment where Sophie kept her last years has been repainted.
Then, Before, In Those Days: We visited once a week. Friday nights. Take the Madison Street bus to Market Street. Or walk down East Broadway. And when I got older, ride the old Raleigh 3 speed.
Then, Before, In Those Days: Press 9 and the elevator would take me and my sister up to the only time of the week we got to drink a C&C coke, eat a hostess cupcake and watch the TV. Slam the elevator door open, run as fast as we could to the next to the last door, the next to the last door down the really long hallway banging the old knocker bang bang bang GRAMMMA!!!!
And at the end of the night sometimes being picked up by Florence and our father, a meandering walk home where we tortured Florence with questions about why she couldn't walk in a straight line, or what happened to her eye, or how come she had no hair on her legs. Or I would hold my father's hand and ask why do we die and do I have to marry a Jewish man.
Then, Before, In Those Days: But other nights just me and my sister maybe I'm 8 maybe she's 12, walking home at 10pm along East Broadway
me asking and asking and asking every questions I had about Star Trek and Captain Kirk asking because I knew she was the smartest person in the world and would know the answer to what I didn't understand about that episode that week.
At the end of us all being a family she moved into our childhood bedroom and never left. Now when I sit beside her I see what I look at for hours before I learn to talk and after I learned to say nothing.
They shut down 8th Avenue because a second guy climbed the Times Building. Just like when we were kids, watching an accident or a fire, we all hung out smack in the middle of the street watching the flashing lights, playing with one another and reenacting the news we were going to watch later.
The corner between our buildings and the barrel park had a special secret passage way wide enough for all of us to slip under until one day we were suddenly almost too big. And then shortly after that it was cemented up and we had to walk around to the gate like all the adults.
Before lobby doors were locked and kids were imprisoned inside their apartments for all their play dates, we ran wild from building to building a hide-n-seek game that spanned the entire housing project, almost peed on ourselves giggling as we hid under all the stairs.
And then one day this corner stopped us all when jumping rope B. called "leaders allowed!" and jumped in backwards on a Spay and I followed, not going to let her get the best of me I catapulted myself through the air to jump in on the "J" and when I hit the bricks they all thought I was laughing but the sound didn't stop and people came running from the other end of the courtyard and someone ran up to tell my parents who never ever got interrupted ever about our playing outside unless of course we did something really really wrong like go on the roof or make fun of A. until she cried. Even though Florence thought an ice pack would make my left arm better, finally my father realized it was serious enough not to take the bus but actually take a rare taxi ride to Beth Israel where they put my arm in a sling, and which I quickly slipped out of because I didn't want to ask anyone else to tie my shoes. So the following week they put me in a sling wrapped to my body and I spent the next two months looking like a one-armed lady with a big lopsided tit, being forced by Florence to practice all the right hand parts of my piano lessons, and made to learn cymbals for the stupid student orchestra performance of "Love of Three Oranges" which of course at the big concert I screwed up and just slammed the right cymbal into the left crash crash crash because I didn't know where we were but I knew it was the end and there were many cymbal crashes at the end and Mrs. K the conductor couldn't stop me for all the glaring she did.
Later I force her use the walker we just got her because none of us are strong enough to hold her up anymore. Especially when she does that I- gotta- sit- down- collapse- on- the- floor thing. That walker is our safety net. It has a chair and it can hold her weight on its arms better than me or P. or G. She is pissed off about having to use it but does what I tell her and grabs the handles and starts shoving herself through space. I shout all the right things like You Have to Get Your Strength Back and You're Doing Great and Let's Go You're Strong.
She's as bad a driver as me and neither of us can get the walker through one doorway and into another without banging chairs, walls, the secretary desk thing, bookcases, and more chairs.
I put on THE PARENT TRAP with Lindsey Lohan because I don't have anything left inside to watch SINGING IN THE RAIN for the thirtieth time I just don't. There's nothing left inside.
THE PARENT TRAP is a miserable movie for both of us. She can't follow it because there is no music to take her through a familiar story and while I wince at the bad writing and crude acting, but marvel at the young Lohan, I answer Florence's repeated questions about the title the plot the actors the title the plot the actors the title the plot and soon it's over ...
...and I surrender and put on SINGING IN THE RAIN and Florence begins to sing furious each and every note and soon to hell with Gene Kelly where ever he is in the song, she motions me to join in and I sing along with her "... in the rain, what a glorious feeling..."
Florence is singing furiously along with the radio again and at some point, to hell with Sinatra where ever he is at in the song, she is in the middle of her own rendition.
"I am singing every note in tune! You don't sing in tune!"
I don't bother. Like most of my recent experiences it doesn't matter what I do. Today all that matters is that Florence needs me to be someone incapable of singing as well as she does. It's the highlight of her week.
Coleslaw shakes precariously on her fork. I hover with a napkin. It's Saturday. P. has successfully cleaned her up and gotten her to the kitchen table. There is no food she likes anymore, save the coleslaw. That she'll eat without telling me how awful it tastes.
I cut another piece of meatloaf. Hand it to her. Do the mommy thing of "Just one bite come on you need to eat some more..."
She bites. "This is terrible."
It's the third sandwich I've tried on her. Nothing works. "What do you want? How can I make it better?"
"Make the food taste good again."
I stare at all the pills I've poured into little neat daily sections. The drugs keeping her alive are killing her life.
Starting at the door and ending up at the back wall the counter swirled like waterways you see on picture maps taken from far away ... like the moon. I sat there for years.
Open twenty-four hours a day, it was my refuge into illusion I belonged to a world outside my door. Today Starbucks and myspace does that for my predecessors. But then, no internet, just real living space offering real living bodies I recognized, a favorite spot where I could write or read or stare out the window hoping "he'd" see me, and come in to renew love (he did several times). That counter kept me going.
The two old ladies (the counter guy called them Jurassic Park) fed me coffee which is all I ever bought and once Zina even patted my hand when, staring at a finished love poem that didn't have a happy ending, I started to cry. At 3am, when I couldn't sleep or after a night of futile socializing was afraid to go back to an empty apartment, I was almost always the rare female there, surrounded by men talking non-stop into a personal darkness from the florescent safety of the formica counter -
*** the 4 foot 9 inches cop who insisted the Thompkin Square Park Riots was the fault of only one or two corrupt cops and the guys at the 5th Street Precinct were straight up and honest
*** the Robert Redford look-alike who loved astrology and whose daughter didn't talk to him and in five minutes you could tell why
*** the unshaven, slightly slovenly, plump "theater-something-or-other" with papers sticking out of his beat up portfolio who talked in ferocious whispers to the Robert Redford look-alike
*** the famous artist who sat and looked for who would be his next subjects in his next famous murals (never me even after 17 years of us facing each other)
*** the short-order cook who announced his marital problems while flipping late night food onto the grill and demanding explanation from the counter guy about why his new bride would get so upset after he locked her out by accident. Again. For the third time. And did any of us think he was trying to tell her something because he didn't think he was HE JUST FORGOT!?
Then the owner's son went to restaurant college, renovation came, light fixtures changed, new murals were put up and the counter was amputated into a brief moment of not worth sitting down. The Jurassic Park ladies insisted it would be the same, hugging me on the street, urging me to come back, and I did, briefly. But it wasn't same. The borscht was served in smaller more expensive bowls, the pierogis became Northern California inventions filled with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes and soon Jurassic Park was gone and in their stead were new waitresses who were young and tight and pretty and impatient to the many new diners who thought they had found an authentic East Village eatery because they were treated so rudely.
And soon after that I recognized only one face in the new Christmas mural - a tiny memorial to an old drinking buddy who died of a heart attack on the corner of 7th and B in 1979.
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.