The teacher in charge of us singing was one of the very few hippy teachers at P.S.110 on Broome Street in the 1960s. He had a mustache that wasn't like the Hasids' facial hair and wide lapels and he was lanky and moved fast and languid at the same time, not like the men in the neighborhood who moved in various forms of clenched misery or defeated surrender to beige meals and lives.
Our class was required to sing at some general assembly and I, who remember nothing, not what movies I have seen or books I have read or conversations I have had, still remember the words to the song he had us sing:
Slow down you're moving too fast you gotta make the morning last just kicking down the cobble stones looking for fun and feeling....
We had no TV. Florence was worried we wouldn't practice our violins if there was a TV in the house. Instead, we had lots of books, two record players, a small but substantial record collection and many, many radios. There were radios in the kitchen, living room, their bedroom and ours. There may have been even one in the bathroom.
Books were gotten at the library, but records were rare purchases. Besides, I was too little to travel to places that might have had record stores. And even if there had been one in the neighborhood, I had no money, my skill at stealing cash from my father to come much later. So if there was a song I wanted to hear, I'd have to wait to hear it on the radio.
So I clung to the little radio by my bed. Like some of my favorite books it was a portal out, even if I couldn't leave. Late at night it pressed to my ear I'd tune that dial so carefully, bring in WABC AM, my favorite station and wait as long as I could stay awake for the song I needed to hear.
And one summer The Edwin Hawkin Singers sang Oh Happy Day. And night after night I waited to hear a song about something so far from any thing I could recognize, yet singing something I heard in my heart, what I thought was a sound of joy and hope. Years later, like last night, in reading the lyrics I wonder how a little kid's brain could have understood the deeper lesson of watching, fighting and praying.
OH HAPPY DAY He taught me how He taught me Taught me how to watch He taught me how to watch and fight and pray fight and pray yes, fight and pray
And he'll rejoice and He'll, and He'll rejoice in things we say and He'll rejoice in things we say things we say yes, things we say
Oh happy day, Oh happy day Oh happy day, Oh happy day Oh happy day Oh happy day
“His homecoming every night was thrill enough for me because his physical presence was sexually provocative. I loved the intimate challenge of living with a stranger. Present, but not completely knowable.”
Maybe I was 10 or 11. My father had not been transferred out to Long Island yet so we had no car. I don't think he even knew how to drive until the transfer. And the only person I knew who did own a car was the uncle of a little boy I played with. That uncle's car had windows that rolled up and down on their own. The uncle's hands rolled up and down on their own as well. Since he hadn't been around the neighborhood in years there were no cars to speak of in my every day life.
Until that Mother's Day.
Paula's father had a car. I am not sure how we all knew where to meet or who was going (since using the telephone was expensive and discouraged in my house) but somehow I weedled my way into the crowded back seat with the girls from the better co-ops by the river so that we could all travel uptown to buy our mothers a mother's day present. A plant.
Prior to this particular Mother's Day, presents consisted of a bottle of perfume that had a tiger skin covered cap and a pair of cooking tongs (used for the next 40 years - don't know about the perfume). After this particular Mother's Day, presents consisted of Mom's request we stop calling her Mom and start calling her Florence.
But on this Mother's Day 'Mom' and presents were still allowed and to have a rare car ride included in the mix was heavenly.
It was cloudy and even a bit cold. The streets were empty and this little store was the only thing open on the block. The selection was dazzling. But to this day I have no memory if I bought anything or not, knowing Florence's dread of any living being that might require her attention. I also have no idea how I had any money, it being highly unlikely my father would have given me any. A vague shimmer of a little cactus for a $1 sometimes swims in my eyes. Regardless, those lost details seemed so unimportant compared to the adventure itself.
And then as all things do, things changed. Mom became Florence, home became other places and plants became exotic and exciting pets that didn't need to be fed every day. I'm not exactly sure when this happened, but one day, a few decades in to living where I now live, I realized the beautiful little plant store around the corner was the very spot of that rare day.
They were exotic beauties rarely seen unless we went uptown to Central Park. I'd squeal and jump up and down at the sight of one, prompting my father to spit under his breath, "rats with fuzzy tails, that's all they are..."
Still, to me they were as magical as the fairy princesses in the picture books. Yet when Mrs. Fass at P.S. 110 on Broome Street gave me my first reader, "squirrel" was the one word I couldn't remember how to read. It was such a foreign concept.
Now, they are all over the city - the courtyard where I grew up, Union Square, Bleeker Street. And all I see are rats with fuzzy tails. Even with therapy, I've become my father.
It was 1980 or 81. Computers had just been introduced into small crowded room filled with clerical workers willing to punch the same things over and over again. Some important company with a name that included Dynamic had a small room it needed crowded but only at night. They were paying a ton of money, $7 an hour when the good going rate was more like 4 or 5. That the Dynamic part of the name was rumored to have something to do with nuclear submarines was troubling but the money was too good, the hours too perfectly situated after the day job and the relaxed dress code just right. As darkness fell, a small group of us would take our places in front of bulky clumps of terminals, face green screens with tiny pulsing cream colored numbers and letters, and with occasional trips to vending machines suddenly more affordable, tap away.
...stopping by B. Altman's to see someone I thought was a friend the clothes too expensive for me to buy coming from City College on the bike trying to beat the red light so I could barrel down on that hill past 34th beating the bus avoiding the construction on 33rd standing on the corner waiting to cross 5th year after year after year headed to a job sustaining me while slowly killing me that Wednesday night late no one out but me walking off furious tears heartbreak and hopelessness who cares if the Empire State Building was a block away a rut carved into this stretch of city...
There was a time when many a friend and neighbor used to be just like them. Times, friends and neighbors are different now. Still, he's managed to hold onto his apartment, but his studio is now surrounded by luxury stores. She had to move to Brooklyn, but she swears she is happy there.
It seemed normal at the time because in New York that's what you did at the neighborhood bar. You brought your kids, your kid brother, your kid sister, whoever... after all that's how I went to the bar the first time. Florence took me. I was 17.
So for me to bring Sissy to the bar when she was 12 was no big deal. (Well, she did look 14.) And it's not like I let her drink or get too interested in all the very grown men flirting with her. (Well, to them she did looked 18 and that was legal drinking age back then.)
Now Sissy got three children and she says she's not letting them visit me until they're 30. Well, it's not like I would take them to bar or anything. For one thing, I barely drink these days. And for another thing, there's just not enough other kids hanging out at the bar anymore to keep them company.
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.