The Laundrymat on 13th Street, now an expensive dessert place of cereal flavored milk, was packed with cheap, big machines in a small crowded concrete storefront. It was run mostly by the Russian wife, and occasionally by her husband but never by her son who looked like her in sideburns. Tons of quarters were poured into plastic dishes for the machines and little boxes of soap were for sale under the always-on TV.
Just like an old bar, it was packed every day with its regulars. All the Chinese extended families from 12th Street, the differently-able adults from the residence on 2nd Avenue, a couple of former drinking buddies of mine from 13th Street, and the growing post NYU market-rate tenants who more often than not dropped their bags of dirty clothes off to be done for them.
Keeping my clothes clean and pristine hid the fact they were old or third-hand or that I couldn't afford new ones. So that laundrymat was important to me. I nodded to the same folks every week, jockeyed with frenemies for a dryer or a washer, caught up on my People Magazine reading and commended my favorite young man from the residence on his detergent pouring technique. (He was most proud he could do his own laundry.)
And then disaster struck. Someone's ballpoint pen stuck in a machine ruined most of my carefully preserved clothes. It wasn't the first time something like this had happened. But when I complained to the son he told me it hadn't happened, even while staring at Jasper John-like streaks on a beige windbreaker.
Then almost immediately after that, Aunt Ruth died and left me some money - just enough to buy my own washer-dryer unit.
Suddenly, like a few of my better off neighbors, I had the means to put myself in the realm of utter rich luxury. I was going to be able to cross over into a comfort of living I never could have imagined ever.
The minute my washer-dryer combo unit was installed I immediately started doing all the laundry I could gather, load after load after load. I forced myself to stop only because a friend was doing a reading at the Astor Place Barnes and Noble, now a luxury, upscale gym. The minute the reading was over I rushed back to do more laundry.
In the next 15 years, I loved that combo washer-dryer more than I loved several boyfriends. There was only one I loved as much and we happily did each others' laundry until the day he left.
Then some years ago, something broke and the washer tub tilted and groaned and scarcely swirled.
The repair guy, warning me never to leave the house while doing a load, quoted a number that was beyond my budget. Still, even half turned on its side and barely rotating, the washer kept my still modest collection of clothes pristine for a couple of more years. I thought it, like laundry with that man I had loved, would go on forever, regardless of broken pieces and limited abilities.
Until tonight. A simple load thrown in produced a flood from the insides. There was no more denying. My beloved little washer was tired. I coaxed another load on a gentler cycle but I could tell there was nothing left it could do.
For friends who grew up with such an appliance in their homes, my attachment to this has been a bit odd. But perhaps it is similar to say a kid in the suburbs getting his or her driver's license or their first car. It is a mark of coming of age. For other than that time of laundry and love, it has been my greatest success at bringing comfort and care into my home.
Goodbyr old friend My old friend There's somethin' I must let you know I haven't said it much I guess I've lost my touch But, my old girl, I love you so
Why my Jewish parents did this or what they were thinking will forever remain a mystery.
Every year when the blinking lights went up and the store windows filled with moving animals, toys and people, my mother and father, my sister and me would leave the lower east side where nary a Christmas tree could be found and head to Macy's to look at all the Christmas decorations.
In those days, the corner window squeezed in between the Nedicks doors had a special Santa throne. We would wait in the freezing cold and then he'd suddenly appear out of the chimney or a beautifully wrapped box and the crowd would go wild as he waved through thick glass that blocked the sound of our cheering or his 'ho ho ho's.
He also lived on the 8th or 9th floor in Santaland. We may have visited him on more than one occasion but I only remember this one time.
I was in fifth grade and it was not going well. Especially math. I was worried. My father, I think, brought me up to Santaland which for some strange reason was almost deserted. I didn't quite get the "ask Santa for presents" deal. I knew it was my dad or my mom who produced the eight days of Chanukah presents. And our God which we never discussed was busy with plagues and lion dens and Israel.
I was kinda big to be climbing onto Santa's lap, but desperate times call for desperate acts. There was only one thing I really wanted that couldn't be gotten anywhere except from someone who made happy dreams come true.
I perched my ten year old self on his knee, and when he asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told him. I want to pass math.
It recently occurred to me, 40 plus years later, that maybe he didn't hear many requests like that. At the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable. Passing math was beyond my own abilities, asking my parents for help was beyond theirs and our God was busy with more important things. It was going to have to be up to Santa.
As if it had already happened, he decreed, "You'll pass math."
And so it came to pass that when fifth grade ended many months later, I had passed math.
The West Side Train Yards - soon to be luxury high rises.
Before the rare purchase of that car, it used to be trains, subways or a Greyhound were the only way out, that is if we had to leave.
Airplanes were as exotic as suddenly living in a Hollywood movie. Beyond imagination. So we didn't imagine. Unless there was a death in the family in a very far away place like California and then only one of us got to go only once.
But besides death, the annual trip to Philadelphia to see aunts, uncles and cousins was about it.
After reading that Bach had lived and died within 60 miles of his birthplace I swore to my mother or my sister or my dad that I would never do that. I was going to go far and away and die some place that proved I had left.
Those train yards and those trains look like what my feet could do if I had kept my promise.
That section of the subway had always been a tunnel, rough concrete, bleak light and often empty except for those not lucky to have a home or another way to make the connection between the BMT and the IRT or IND. If you could get to the Port Authority another way you usually did.
Then they made Times Square pretty and that meant the subway too. Beautiful tile and picturesque murals. Even the bands got upgraded.
Saturday night, I had heard the strains of a band banging out Beatles drift down to the platform on my way uptown to another attempt of joviality.
On the way back down, I found myself in the now pretty tiled and brightly lit tunnel. There at the mouth was a motley crew of men and one woman crowded together, her in a Santa hat doing bass lines like nobody's business as the Beatles' A Day In The Life poured into space once too dismal to walk.
The words of suicide and desire and then that last chord never ending of both feelings followed all of us rushing to the BMT line.
On our side of the Williamsburg Bridge there were barely any electric menorahs in our windows. Our menorahs, old brass or faux silver with blue inlays to represent Israel, lived on tables and had old melted candles of muted colors, candles bought in the same blue box made by the same company from any store on the Lower East Side.
So it was the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge that every year as it got colder and colder I would watch carefully. There, the tall projects would burst, window by window, into brilliant colored lights rarely seen in the homes I knew. I counted them, like counting flowers in a garden.
It was more than a year and a half ago, but it seems like just yesterday he was chewing on envelopes almost as big as him.
Today Jupiter is now 15.9 pounds.*
And just like that first week he moved in when I heard myself laugh again for the first time in years, this year with all its new days and weeks, I've watched myself love again for the first time in years.
*Us waiting for Dr. G. to break the news Jupiter needs to eat a bit less.
It had been years because the menorah had been up in a closet and Dana couldn't reach it. This year Ping brought it down. The miracle of a helping hand.
Dana couldn't remember if there were candles but Ping found the two boxes Dana had tucked away years ago. Another miracle.
I was able, after weeks of work, to come visit. Miracle!
And then Dana sang the bruchas and for the first time in years, miracles of miracles I got to celebrate the Miracle of Lights.
Of course neither of us could remember the words to Rock Of Ages but the miracle of joy at sharing the holiday together unfolded instead.
Rock Of Ages
Rock of Ages let our song, Praise thy saving power; Thou amidst the raging foes, Wast our shelt'rng tower.
Furious they assailed us, But Thine arm availed us, And Thy word broke their sword, When our own strength failed us. And Thy word broke their sword, When our own strength failed us.
The Eight Days Of Miracles
Once the Maccabees had regained control they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. By this time it had been spiritually defiled by being used for the worship of foreign gods and also by practices such as sacrificing swine. Jewish troops were determined to purify the Temple by burning ritual oil in the Temple’s menorah for eight days. But to their dismay, they discovered that there was only one day's worth of oil left in the Temple. They lit the menorah anyway and to their surprise the small amount of oil lasted the full eight days.
In the trenches, everyone had to figure out how they were going to pray. This being New York, there were many versions to pick from just in case you couldn't do the old white guy with the white beard up on a white cloud.
For a while mine was a hand on a doorknob. Somehow that seemed to opened me up to hope that the war, both within and without, would end.
This guy said his was always the Chrysler Building. He could always look up and see a beauty of lights.
Decades later, the hand on the doorknob often got dimmed by worry and fear. But with so many glass building crowding the sidewalk, I found myself catching glimpses of a beauty of lights, remembering that however I understand it, there was a greater expanse awaiting me. I just had to look up.
So his request to be let out often has less to do with climbing stairs and sniffing doorways than it does waiting patiently for Rags to take her afternoon constitution.
It isn't that Rags doesn't know he's alive. On the contrary, she does. She just doesn't understand his place in her world. He speaks a different alphabet and she is usually in a rush to inspect her favorite trees.
Still, he waits to gets a chance to march up to her and say hello before the elevator door opens causing him to retreat to safety. He has great hope and even greater determination. And his heart is even bigger than those two combined.
Stairs in the former High School of Performing Arts on 46th Street
My withdrawal to the back staircase during lunch hour had nothing to do with any sense of integrity or autonomy. It was a full body retreat. I just gave up trying to fit in with the kids who seemed to have figured out how to be human.
So I sat by myself and to this day I wondered what I was eating for lunch since I don't remember anyone at home making any more food during those days.
Not sure how it started but the cute violinist came across me one day and asked if he could join me. He too needed a break from attempting to fit into a scene completely foreign to him.
Soon after, the accordion player who was the only one in the school found us. I think the cute violinist had said something.
The 13 year old Prodigy sent to New York by himself, living in a walk-up railroad on the east side by himself, taking care of himself by himself, began to eat with us.
Then so did the pretty oboe player, who the Prodigy liked.
November 24 would have been Florence's 87th or 86th Birthday.
Not really knowing the circumstances of her birth on November 24, 1923 or 4, I have no idea if she was celebrated when she arrived. Possibly not. Her father was a World War 1 veteran who wasn't very nice and her mother, erudite, educated, multi-lingual, worked as a practical nurse because as an immigrant and refugee from Russia, it was what she could do. Her father not much in the picture in between hospital stays and abusive behavior, resources her mother had went toward the basics and then Florence's music lessons.
Poverty and unhappiness perhaps didn't lend itself to birthday parties with pretty cakes but stories of how much could be done with so little offer some hope that maybe there were birthdays she really enjoyed.
It was her 65th birthday that my sister did it up right with Florence's first birthday cake. A real cake with icing and flowers and her name and candles to blow out. As it wasn't something we ever got as kids, giving her this cake was a big deal. I found the candles - a 6 and a 5 - in a drawer of one of her tables when we cleaned out her house.
I had written this old friend to see if she had an extra camera lying about that she wasn't using. A week later, much to my shock, a new one appeared in my mailbox. Her New York will begin a new series next week thanks to Morgan's amazing generosity, friendship and support.
Thirty years ago I met Morgan. She wasn't from New York but she moved through my city as its eyes, a witness to its private corners and secret worlds and painful revolution that soon became joyous mainstream. Her hands danced a ballet with her cameras and when decades later I got up enough nerve to pick up a camera my hands danced as hers did. After all, her hands had, for a long long time, been the only role models I ever had.
The international center of peace and security had gone late into the night. The main gates were locked. That meant a long walk along my childhood river to the only entrance to home.
We meandered down, keeping an eye out for rats and talked about the small wars we had won in our own lives and the peace we had made with our past.
Suddenly, I realized our walk, this night, those lights, my colleague, that reflection, this moment would never ever happen again, the next day offering only more blizzards of words that brought nothing closer to kindness.
As a replacement camera hurtles through space, Her New York presents encores of beloved posts and dear memories.
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.
As a replacement camera hurtles through space, Her New York presents encores of beloved posts and dear memories.
All I Need Is The Air That I Breathe And To Love You
It's 10:30 at night. Something is wrong. Even after they give her medicine from a mask that comes pouring out into her face, Florence can't stop coughing. It hurts it hurts and afterwards she is too wiped out to even breathe. She begs me to make it better make it better. I keep wetting paper towels and try to convince her to keep the mask with all the medicine pouring out into her face. She keeps taking the mask off it hurts it hurts she can't breathe it's wiping her out make it better make it better I keep wetting paper towels and try to convince her to keep the mask with all the medicine pouring out into her face she keeps taking off the mask off it hurts it hurts make it better....
Finally at 11:30 at night it's better...
Maria! Say it loud and there's music playing, Say it soft and it's almost like praying.
Maria is all of teeny tiny. She lives near Florence - Delancy and Essex or maybe that's where she shops, the Essex Street market - it's hard to tell, my rudimentary Spanish picks up about half of what she says even after the nurse assistant waves it off saying oh she blabs a lot so don't worry if you don't catch it all.
But one night I come in and she starts talking too fast even after I beg in Spanish "Dispacio, porfavor, dispacio" this isn't blabbing it feels important and I don't understand and the other roommate - the 95 year old who is sharp as a tack and used to live on Suffolk and Houston but now is in Brooklyn near Coney Island because her son has a house - she translates what I miss, not because she understands Spanish but because she saw what happened.
Florence hadn't been eating for days. Nothing tasted good, everything made her cough, she didn't feel like it. The nurses or the assistant nurses tried to coax a few things down once I got her to gum a piece of chicken or a piece of carrot before she spit it out and when the ensure made her cough I just couldn't insist. Mostly the food trays just stayed untouched.
This night had been busy I am not sure why maybe more beds filled or dinner arriving all at once and the healthy people in charge of the unhealthy people suddenly having their hands full and there just wasn't enough hands or enough time so no one really forced Florence to take that second bite or another sip.
Maria got up out of bed, went over to Florence and then fed her.
[Gretl:] I flit, I float, I fleetly flee, I fly
The sun has gone to bed and so must I
[Children:] So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
The picture I take after getting messages that Florence is being sent home once she is assessed for palliative care.
As a replacement camera hurtles through space, Her New York presents encores of beloved posts and dear memories.
The Long and Winding Road
We had hoped it would go away. But it didn't.
Then the substitute home attendant and the recreational therapist both said something. I had some time off but was still putting back together small pieces of a recently broken life - I just wanted a bit more time before another 10 hours in the ER. I kept asking with great hope to G., "Maybe it's a cold?" G. kept saying "I don't know". I finally asked with great hope to Doctor Russia, "Maybe it's a cold?" He said, "No, it's not cold. Bring her to ER, it is best, they do X-Ray..." Then G. said with great hope, "She seems better!"
But the next morning it was still there. When I got to her apartment I knew it was not a cold. Her chest heaved up and down like Signorny Weaver in Ghost Busters when Weaver got possessed.
So we began the long and winding...
"You're doing great," I say to her.
She says, "You're just saying that. I'm a mess."
I can't stop laughing. "You're right. You're a mess."
She says, "It's all your fault."
When the ER nurse asked Florence, "Do you know where you are?", Florence answered, "I'm not home."
Time, Time, Time, See What's Become of Me
What to bring to a day at the ER:
crackers ensure cups straws water bottle yogurt your own spoon writing pens and highlighter case filofax with all the numbers to contact in case of... prayer bag with sutra book and beads extra camera knitting LL Bean catalog to distract Florence Swimming to Antarctic by Lynne Cox to distract me journal to write everything down You Can Hear the Ocean Roar In The Dangling Conversation
"I'm not going to say no in this place."
"Did you think a little nothing in the morning could keep me here all day?"
"I have unsettled things in my body."
"Claire. Are you Claire or Louise?"
"When do I get up in the morning?" -When you wake up in the morning. "Oh fuck."
"I swear if I ever get past here I'll shoot you."
-(doctor) Where are we? What kind of building is it? "Oh, it's a swell building."
"Help me." -What do you need?" "Somebody's hand."
"I love you. -I love you. "I never said that to anybody." -I know "How do you know?"
From September 28, 2008, an encore from a series on men, cars, and secrets
This is the last secret a man told me in a car.
It was the early 1990s when New York was still New York City and I still belonged here.
Unless it was life saving - like going to work to pay the rent - I had stopped leaving my apartment.
Every morning a desire to die would slammed into me and leave me unable to pull on the latex body suit of chirpy-supportive-sister-sledge-we're-all-family-let-me-support-you-with-your-dreams-girl bullshit personality I had worn for quite some time. I knew I had been me at my birth, before I became what everyone needed. But I didn't have a clue how to get back to her. So I lived in that bleak despair. Every day. Every night. Very little relief. Not even eating helped.
Then a friend's husband started leaving messages and sending letters and then leaving more messages. He was giving her a surprise birthday party at their suburban mansion. She was turning some big age like forty and no expense would be spared. He would even arrange for a car service because I just had to be there.
And he was right. I did have to be there. This woman had saved my life many years ago. Not by pulling me out of some ocean or taking a bullet for me. She had just made sure I got taught to protect myself. I owed her my life and I owed her my presence and that meant leaving my house.
It was the first time in a long time I was around people and I not only got through the night without a psychotic break, I even gave a warm birthday toast. Something about licking stamps and making a siddach.
True to his word, the husband had hired a car service to take a bunch of us back into the city. A gaggle of self-important women filled the back of the car. So I took shot-gun. I listened to conversations that seemed vapid and cruel and clanging and wondered if leaving my house had been worth it. One by one the driver dropped them off in neighborhoods I would never be able to afford to live in.
To be polite, or to counteract the unpleasantness of the other passengers, I asked the driver if he enjoyed driving for a living.
He answered that driving his own taxi in the town he lived in allowed him to always know what size shoe his kid wore. I probably exclaimed something like wow or brave or huh.
And then he said, "Well, I died once. And when I came back I decided to change things."
He had been working security at one of the fanciest hotels in mid-town. There was a jewelry store in the basement promenade. One day in the afternoon an alarm sounded. Someone was robbing the jewelry store. He raced down to the promenade and ran smack into the robber who then shot him point blank.
At that moment he looked down and saw his body and the frantic efforts to save him. Then he saw the corridor and the light.
He rushed towards it because it felt really good and he could hear all his relatives on the other side of the light and he couldn't wait to see them, his favorite aunt, his grandmother, her grandmother, his entire family from the beginning of time. But just as he was about to go through they all said, "No." It wasn't his time. He had to go back. He'd see them again when it was right.
That was the moment his heart began to beat again and EMS shouted many things and he was rushed off to the hospital.
By this time, we were parked at the corner hydrant by my building. I suddenly had this great hope that if I took his hand, touched him, somehow his life would pour into mine and I'd be able to return to the land of the living.
The second I thought that he said, "I don't know why I told you that story. I rarely tell anyone. When I do, they always want to touch me."
I sat on my hands.
For the first time since I fell apart I thought about what, if anything I might have to offer another person that was uniquely mine to give, but wouldn't kill me if I gave it.
He started talking about his wife's brother. The brother had just died. In those days it was still called the "gay cancer" and rumors ran rampant - you could catch it from toilet seats or using the same plate or standing next to...
No one but the driver's wife and and the driver had been willing to love and care for the brother as he got sicker and sicker. Now the lover of the brother was sick.
The driver spoke heartbreak and he spoke alone and he spoke my days in and out. The journey through despair. I knew what I had to give and I knew giving it would begin my life again.
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.