The competition to have breasts and a new bra was fierce on Grand Street. Of course all the other girls got the bras first, regardless of how far along the secondary sex characteristic were. It was only when I ripped all my simple girl tees shirts down the middle and insisted that that destruction had been caused by my early bosom did Florence loosen purse strings and send me off to Grand and Orchard and one of the many local underwear stores run almost exclusively by Hasid and Orthodox Jews.
Then, as now, the assessment of size was done in two ways. If it was a man who waited on you, a deceptively vague glance across your chest could pinpoint the right cup size within millionths of an inch. If it was a woman, usually the wife, the mother, the mother-in-law, sizing was much more hands on.
And so this first time, as all the times after, I stepped forward, stated my need, and within seconds a pair of elderly, firm and intelligent hands grasped what I had, up to this point, been able to grow in 13 years. Then as quickly as they came, the hands left. A thin, white box was pulled from hundreds of identical boxes stacked on wall shelves and what was referred to as a training bra appeared. I don't think I even tried it on in the store. It was packaged and paid for and I headed home, a bit bewildered by touch I had only experienced before by camp counselors and friends' uncles, but at least carrying proof that now I was a woman.
A couple of years ago, in need of a bra that not only really fit, but also fulfilled certain vanity criteria, I returned to Orchard Street and to one of the few remaining dusty underwear shops. Stepping into the familiar walls of shelves of hundreds of identical boxes I was immediately met with that brilliant cursory glance by the young bearded Hasid. And after barely telling the mother-in-law what I needed, a pair of elderly, firm and intelligent hands grasped what I had, up to this point, been able to grow over 50 years.
*BYE BYE BIRDIE
How Lovely To Be A Woman
...How lovely to be a woman,
The wait was well worth while;
How lovely to wear mascara
And smile a woman's smile.
How lovely to have a figure,
That's round instead of flat...
In the new terminal, which is new because it's younger than fifteen years, the fresh-faced and very patient kid at the Staten Island Information Booth answered the same questions over and over again. No, you go out there and the boat to the Statue of Liberty is to your left... yes, here's where you get the Staten Island Ferry... yes, it's free... no, you go out there and the boat to the Statue of....
I asked him if he got bored. Nah, he shrugged. Today was slow and the liberty boat stopped at 3. He tried to be helpful. Then he grinned and said, "When they ask me what they should do to get on the ferry, I tell them, walk and then sit."
When we videotaped Florence in her kitchen (the picture up on top is from that taping), Adrian lent us his camera and then lent us his heart. He wrangled Florence. Only a man with a heart could do that. Realizing her image would be expression that went beyond her piano she did what she usually did when old pain ached. She got angry, and then strident. But that day she did not destroy. That's because regardless of what I asked her to do or not do, Adrian was on her side. She recognized a kindred soul. Someone not born here but born with what truly is here.
Gus's Pickles had always been on Essex's Street. Like forever forever. Past the sporting goods place where all the stuff in the window we couldn't afford and past the religious article place with the outside winding stairs that I finally went into in 1992 right after Chicken Pox and right before the holidays (nothing says Merry Christmas like a Star of David).
(Later I found postcards of New York with this block on it and with Gus's on it - postcards that screamed THIS IS REAL NEW YORK SEE HOW UNIQUE IT IS??!! But by that time, everything had moved, changed, disappeared.)
Gus's after like forever and forever and like everyone else during the boom lost their lease and then there was that unhappy business with the employees who moved up Essex's and opened the Pickle Guys and so finally Gus's landed on Orchard across from the Tenement's Museum. It went from a shopping destination with people shouting orders for something they needed in their daily life, to a brief moment on a walking tour where a carefully modulated voice quietly told of the Pickle's Place in Lower East Side Life at the Turn Of The Century. And all the tourists would politely and quietly request for fifty cents yes a pickle?
Far cry from crowds screaming "Gimme five more dill and the tomatoes, you got the tomatoes in there? and wait another sour...."
To us a sour was up there with Snoballs in Treat Heaven.
Irene, mother of one, Lower East Side Girl through and through, remembers Her Orchard Street and Other Sundry Moments .
One of the few stores left where Irene can buy her socks and nylons
"I remember the ladders that rolled along the wall of shelves and the hair accessories all stapled outside on each box so you could really see all the barrettes and clips. Thousands of products, all the merchandise, all stapled on the outside of the boxes. You'd have to ask for what you wanted and they'd go get it for you.
When you were Chinese, they never paid you no mind until you were ready. And it wasn't like we were dressed nicely. We shopped on Orchard Street every other week. I don't know what my mother was buying.
I'll tell you what Orchard Street taught me. It taught me to negotiate. Those Jews didn't respect you if you didn't. If you didn't they were insulted. These days I don't bargain. There's no one there to bargain with.
My friends and I wandered the streets incessantly. People watched out for each other. My mother never worried. I wish my son had the freedom I had. He's eleven and can't cross the street by himself. He's starting now. He's starting on the bus. But when I was 7 (second grade) and my brother was 4 (Pre-K), my mother put us on the 6 train to visit my aunt in the Bronx, a cruddy part, and no one questioned that. My brother and I walked to the Municipal Building and went under the turnstile. I don't think that my mother was lazy. She worked hard and needed some time to herself and did not care to spend five to seven hours in my aunt's hand laundry store. We were pesky and insistent so she relented and let us go. If I did that to my son, I'd be arrested. But I hear that from everyone, in Queens, here, everywhere. Kids are just not independent like we were.
And I confuse my friends because it's hard for them to understand how it could be so fantastic to have lived a less than idyllic life in the LES among projects, tenements, gangs, and having to watch your back. I laughed when I read about your asking your friend to put away his camera because he might get mugged. To this day when I sit in a restaurant I have to sit facing the door so that I can see who is coming in or if trouble is looming, something I learned in my youth that I cannot shake, even if I am in a fancy restaurant.
When you get older, and reach back into your memory, you don't remember vacations or trips. You remember the boring moments. My father worked six days a week, long, long hours. So I remember when on Sunday, his one day off, he'd join us because it was so rare. Everyone in Chinatown went to City Hall Park because it was green and beautiful. I remember the rare Sundays my father joined us in the park. I remember that, not the first vacation we took to Toronto when I was in my late teens. My son has been everywhere, San Diego, Sanibel Island, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean Disney Land, everywhere. Soon, he'll be going to Costa Rica and probably China. You know what his favorite memories are? Bedtime, when we read stories."
Another one of Dana's short pieces. The instructor of her writing class asked them to write about their wisdom.
Wisdom, if that applies to me, comes from my mother who insisted that I always stand up for myself and never contribute to my own problems by being too compromising. From my father, I learned to be compassionate, and caring empathetically. She imposed self-discipline. He welcomed social interactions and humor.
But life (marriage, motherhood and widowhood) together with many health calamities, taught me to trust in my eventual survival at any cost. This is what I hope my children will have picked up from me.
My personal philosophy includes all of the above PLUS the notion that to defer nothing is a wise attitude. There seems to be no reality in thinking "one day I will..." Probably you will not.
Tina, a writer and mother of four, remembers Her New York (Brooklyn), and one I only knew as on the other side of the bridge and somewhere near Coney.
"When I was a teenager, I would take the train everywhere. I grew up in the Cypress Hills Housing projects and I had this boyfriend in Astoria and I just figured out which trains to take, I was 13? The RR train to Astoria, almost the last stop on the RR. I showed up at his house and he asked me what I was doing there and I said 'I wanted to see you.' He took me back to Brooklyn! Well, that was the end of that. Later, I had another boyfriend up in Harlem so I had to get the IRT from the A and I met people there, older than me who told me they had NEVER been to Brooklyn. They were New Yorkers and Harlemites but downtown to them was 34th Street."
Tina met her husband of 28 years when he moved into the same apartment building. They eventually moved to New Jersey to raise their family in a safer environment. I asked how her children were children of New Yorkers and how they were New Jersey natives.
"They are very independent. My 14 year old daughter travels from NJ to NY on her own. I'm in constant contact with her by cell phone, but she travels by herself. Has since she was ten. My younger son (in his 20's) is very street savvy. However, they don't have the same insecurities that I have. Like with the police. I grew up in the 'hood' and police were not our friends. My kids are OK with the police. My older son wants to be one and is on the list. On the other hand, they're a bit more sheltered. Once my daughter said some people looked too scary to her. I told her 'you have family that looks like that.' And when I was in school we had 40 kids to a class. Here they say oh we have such crowded classrooms and they're talking about 20 kids."
She has lived in NJ for many, many years now but NY never quite leaves us, no matter where we travel.
"NYers are much more well-rounded. We're exposed to all sides - poverty, richness. I met someone who had never met a gay person. Well, that's what they thought but nothing I said could change their mind. When my job required to me to travel, I had to go to Texas for a task force and I was like 'let's get to the point.' We take charge, get down to business - a natural leadership. Someone there said to me, 'I can't get over your accent.' I was like, 'what accent?' And there's the driving to stores or to food/restaurants. When I transferred to a job in the middle of NJ, I had to drive. I asked someone where did they go for lunch? They pointed to a gas station across the highway. Every lunch hour people would go to the deli at the gas station. THAT'S where I draw the line. I'm not eating at a gas station. And the quiet. The actual quiet. Took some getting used to. Well, I may lay my head in NJ but my heart is in Brooklyn. I want my ashes spread over the Brooklyn Bridge."
For a second I thought parts of Florence had come back to life. Same sneakers, cheekbones and that skinny body bursting with life, but in jeans and a bandana.
She was staring at all the reading glasses. Only the pharmacist saw me hiding behind a corner and quietly snapping pictures. He didn't to say anything, even though he had that uncomfortable look of 'that's not allowed here I wish I were a manager and could say so." It's possible he thought we were related, both of us dressed like one another and different from everyone else in the store.
Finally she stomped just like Florence over to the counter and told him she needed glasses but couldn't figure out which one was which and how did she know which one was which and which one would be the one she could read with and although he was swamped and the only one at the counter he came out and tried to explain to her which was which and what was what.
"I can't read my newspaper!" she exclaimed, as he pointed here and there. You just knew it was the Times she was talking about.
Perhaps it was all the times strangers stopped for Florence or perhaps it was all the times I wish I had, but I found myself standing at the rack handing her different strengths and styles and explaining and commenting and sure enough she picked the pair with the least bells and whistles and the one most fitting for someone with a soul like a razor and a face that defied the contradiction of age and beauty.
Found in an old journal, Florence's instructions to me. "A rule....., always have a (small) piece of paper & a pencil (the stub is just right for necessary jots of info - size is all) in your pocket - it is never lost & it fills memory to perfection!"
*With thanks to Alana. Her camera is her version of a small piece of paper and a stub of a pencil. "My research has been my outlet here, walking everywhere and photographing signs that sometimes are barely visible or stumbling on a piece of paper or address of a person I am researching at the archives and realizing that someone else had growing pains too and if they could do it so can I, ...very grateful that this is my home and to paraphrase Alfred Kazin, the past is screaming to be heard..think I've pulled it out of every crevice."
Barbara, a minister in New Hampshire remembers Her New York, one I only knew in glamorous movies where women had curves and to show them off in wonderful dresses of black and white.
Aunt Toots "My Aunt Toot lived at 212 E. 48th Street from the time I was born (almost 70 years ago) till around the late 60's. A very sophisticated executive secretary for RT Vanderbilt, she introduced me to my first alcoholic drink when I was about 18. After seeing me turn up my nose to a dry sherry, she fixed me a home squeezed Tom Collins and I've been drinking gin ever since.
Tootie made most all of my dresses till I finished graduate school, using the same pattern and varied types of material. This was very helpful as my hips were so much larger than my waist that it was almost impossible to buy ready made dresses.
One of the great times was when my mother and I took an overnight train to the city from Maine. I can't imagine why it would have taken all night. We did things like the Ice Follies and taping of the Perry Como show, also saw Victor Borge.
Aunt Toot never went outside without her veil and gloves. Her scent was Chanel No. 5. When I visited her, she would take me to great places for lunch--I also wore white gloves but not a veil! And of course we always went to Radio City Music Hall."
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.