After flinging thousands of sweaters and shirts in every color and fabric up against our faces to find the perfect one for only $4.99, cheaper if we had gone on Thursday Customer Appreciation Day 25% off, Mimi and I ended up at the one place that offered a real grilled cheese sandwich with cheese that might not have been so real, but we didn't care, they made them with tomatoes and they had Lipton's Tea. We were starving and sitting down was like coming home only better because everything always tasted good after tough shopping on a cold day. And besides, you didn't have to do the dishes, the plates were plastic.
No tables, just counters and fierce Greek between the guys behind the counter and a couple customers on the red stools. One after another kids came in asking for change of a dollar, they all needed four quarters for the parking meters outside.
Shake Shack just opened nearby and some of the nicer chains are moving in on the small, tough stores that weathered everything because when you are always living flat-broke, the economy never changes and your customers can just about afford you. Mimi thinks soon those grilled cheese and souvlaki joints will be a thing of the past, the kids of these guys having better things to do than flip cheese sandwiches and slice shwarma off the grill. I think the quarter-meters aren't going to last much longer either, my street now filled with computers that take electronic change.
Still, I pointed out we would have had to stand on line to Shake Shack which probably wouldn't have had a good cup of tea. And besides how can you beat a grilled cheese sandwich made on a real grill.
The frame was too high on Dana's new bed. Getting up was like rock climbing and getting down was the Giant Salom but without the snow.
So we ordered a new one, thinking it would arrive in a couple of days.
But then the new computer system didn't work. So the frame arrived a week later.
We thought oh so we'll come down on that day.
But then Dana asked we come the next day.
I promised we'd be there at such and such a time, but of course we got there almost an hour later.
Then the Mariner couldn't get the frame to line up and I didn't help by insisting that one side was longer than the other when in fact it was just angled more like a trapezoid and he was trying to re-angle it in between me whipping out a 12 inch ruler once used in PS 110 by Dana's son to prove that in fact that side of the bed frame was longer.
Finally the bed fit perfectly and Dana could sit down on it without any athletic training.
She insisted we stay for lunch and have tea and kaiser rolls, herring and lox, cream cheese and butter, and lots and lots of rugelach. The apple pie we passed on.
There was no way we could use the frame that was too high. It was pointless to keep it. But it was a really good frame and no one wanted to throw it out. So the Mariner taped up and stuck a piece of paper on it that said "free bed frame! new!"
Before we headed down to the communal recycling room, Polly the cat needed love. "I want a picture of that!" Dana said. So the Mariner rummaged through my crowded bag of screwdrivers and shopping bags, found the camera case, pulled out the camera and took a picture. The second after he clicked the shutter, Polly had enough love and jumped down.
I forgot the right elevator was the shabbos elevator, stopping on every floor from 1 to 20. So we got off on the 14th floor and waited for the not-for-shabbos left elevator. The numbers let us know whoever had gotten on at the 12th floor was being detoured up to us.
We stepped in with our almost brand new but too high bed frame and there was an almost coordinated, neatly dressed, middle aged couple, laundry stuff in hands, annoyed their trip down had been interrupted with a brief trip up.
Until they saw the frame.
"Are you giving it away?" they both asked.
"Yes! Do you want it?" asked the Mariner.
"Yes! We need one!" and without much ado, he handed the couple the barely used, month old, too high bed frame.
My friend Joel Thompson once again is inspiring students from around the country and the world to leap into writing one-hour TV dramas. You can take his workshop at UCLA Extension. So if you are in Los Angeles or thinking of visiting Los Angeles and changing your life, check out it out!
(FYI-His students adore him and often take him out after the course ends to fete him. In the world of writing/teaching THAT is quite rare.)
Ann Marie had found Pat's door open, which rarely, if ever, happens. So she went to make sure Pat was OK.
Ann Marie then got John who was on maintenance duty who told me as I walked in from my trip to Astoria. I joined him, Pat and Ann Marie and we all tended to "Pet", Pat's nickname for Rags.
After, in between Pat's family calling from around the country, Pat and Ann Marie drank wine, I had whiskey and we talked of our New York and writing and journalists who were household-names and old friends of Pat's and great actresses who were household-names and old friends of Pat's and whose Lady MacBeth Ann Marie saw in the 60's and about the days when cigarette smoking was normal and how Carola gave me whiskey after Florence's memorial. Jupiter wandered in and out of Pat's, but only after Constance, the mom of Jackson came downstairs to get her cat Scarf from my apartment which he got into because my front door was open as I ran back and forth to put up the notices that Rags had died.
I don't know much about other buildings but here we gather in small and tender ways, our faces intimate and familiar to one another as only they can be when traveling together for so long. We recount one another's history. We bear witness when life happens on life's terms. We keep company when company is needed.
Pat and I have lived next door to one another since 1976. Rags moved in much later. She was Stephen's.
Pat's the real thing.
Grew up in the Bronx, worked the newspapers when newspapers were still newspapers and journalists were still journalists. Knows everybody who's anybody who made New York reporting the kind of reporting they make movies about, including all those tough guys that actors imitate when they have to play a "real" reporter.
Jupiter is still in love with Rags but completely confused about it ever since Rags stopped ignoring him and started visiting us. So now Rags runs into the apartment, Jupiter runs away, Rags sniffs all the rooms, Jupiter runs after him, Rags eats all Jupiter's food, Jupiter watches, Rags runs out, Jupiter follows and then after Rags goes home or to the park, Jupiter sits at her door and sniffs for about an hour.
Although the date on the picture says "Aug 67" more likely than not my father took this picture in the winter but using the camera sparingly (after all, film was expensive and so was processing) he didn't finish the roll until the summer. So probably every season was recorded in one roll of film.
This was my winter coat for several years. A couple of sizes bigger than me (of course) and grown into (of course), my father called this my Joseph Coat Of Many Colors. When the musical came out I became very confused. THAT coat didn't look like mine.
I also didn't realize that Joseph, as a son of the desert probably didn't need a hood on his. But this was how I understood this coat, bought second hand or handed down but clearly a coat that that traveled through other lives before reaching me. I wore it as the mantel of a man in the midst of sibling rivalry but destined to heal his family. This of course led to many years of therapy.
And these were my parents' winter coats. Judging from the angle, I must of taken this picture.
Florence was still wearing winter coats then. I suspect she gave them up around the same time she gave up skirts and men. Her coat was a Harris Tweed bought probably at Macys or A&S or B. Altmans or Gimbels. It was expensive. At some point she relined it. Forty-four years later, it's still in great shape and I wear it. Being shorter than Florence was then, I look like Little Red Riding Hood, only without the hood or the red.
My father's coat was, I believe, a Hudson Bay, also very expensive. Or it could have been an LL Bean. It was his winter coat until he moved to California in the 1980's. It is still in his closet. Just in case the weather suddenly changes. The last time I checked, it was dusty but ready to go. For a brief moment, he and I talked about giving it to my then boyfriend who was unprepared for the North American winters. However, I suspect he clung to that coat the same way Florence discarded hers. A reminder of other times and other weather.
Years and years and years ago times were, well, not so hotsy totsy. I was urged to every night make a list of three things I felt grateful for. I thought it was the stupidest thing I ever heard of. If there were things to feel grateful for, I wouldn't be in the shape I was. But desperate for anything better than what was, I did. Often item 2 and 3 were the pencil and the paper I was using. Scrapping the bottom of the barrel.
Then one day I noticed a gentle reprieve. The list grew. My life soften.
Things got better, things got worse, things got different. Things got real. Life went on.
Then things got, well, not so hotsy totsy. I was urged to thank my problems. I told the bearer of such advice to go fuck himself. But desperate for anything better than what was, I did. And slowly a rejection turned into a reprieve from a firing line, a disaster led to the perfect place where things ran perfectly, a broken heart broke open bigger and I ended up loving someone else more.
Each obstacle held the gift I always wanted. I began to thank my problems. But only after the fact when I saw how well things always turned out
Things got better, things got worse, things got different. Things got real. Life went on.
And then things got completely and unequivocally horrible grief loss rage insanity wiping shit off floors begging love not to leave sudden wakings in the middle of the night desperate to have those lost years back desperate not to feel it was all over desperate...
There was nothing to do but thank and thank and thank while pouring out pain like a mother giving birth not always sure the gift I sought laid beneath such poundings. The more I poured out pain, grief or loss or desire or yearning or unresolved or uncertainty or fear or .... pages and pages and pages of thanks poured out too, like the kisses that pour out when love invites.
Thank you for this crisis -- it got me to go deeper and
recognize the bruised injury thank you for forcing me to practice loving
even when I was being rejected it hurt like hell and I was so exhausted
from years of crying but I finally emerged from the prison I had always
lived in thank you for such sorrowful childhood moments it taught me to
stand in the heart of a crisis, a trauma, a disaster and understand war
and choose peace thank you for my desire and my passion. It has kept me
moving to bigger rather than smaller thank you for the directness of
your words the clarity of your heart oh and thank you thank you thank
you for that kiss that night thank you for this pain that makes me weep
with regret and love with abandonment thank you for such a beautiful
home it may be filled with heartbreaking memories but it is a home that
sheltered me these three tough decades and I can still afford to live in
and it is now so rare and I am blessed.
Thank you for the memories of where everything that went wrong was only on its way to going right.
Years later, in fact two weeks ago, I found this drawing I had made commemorating both the Thanksgiving holiday and my sister's recovery from spinal meningitis. Perhaps I was genuinely thankful. Perhaps I was greatly relieved I hadn't killed her and was now reprieved from a life burdened with a horrible secret and crushing guilt. Either way, I was clearly glad to give thanks.
Florence's mother, Sophie told me one day to always say 'I'm sorry' first. I did for years until it became detrimental to my health to believe I was always wrong and beholden to make things right, regardless of the circumstance.
I always thought 'I love you' was the most important sentence in the world, probably because I heard so little of it. I did many things to say that sentence and I did more things hoping it would be said. Those words, important as they may be, were at times just words without action.
It was, when forced to heal from too many 'I'm sorry' and 'I love you' that shouldn't have been said, that I learned how to say 'thank you' to everything. With every statement of gratitude I grew back my sense of self. 'Thank you' became my fountain of youth, richness, and joy.
The night Florence died at Beth Israel the words I said most were "thank you". Perhaps if I had drawn a picture of that night it would look exactly like the one I drew for my sister so many years before, only with more machinery around the hospital bed and without my dad.
Thanksgiving 2011 - November 24th would have been Florence's 87th or 88th birthday. I was privileged to join her on her journey to her end and somehow along the way I got to love her and be loved by her in ways I could have never imagined.
Since then, I have survived these past years because of the varied gifts she had bestowed upon me, both tangible and intangible, least of all this blog of stories about the City she and I love with all our hearts and souls, and every bit of our passion and our art. For that and for everything I am truly thankful.
We were talking about how songs were haven for memories, sometimes so painful they couldn't be listened to for years. And smell, like when I walked into Florence's building and smelled the rice and beans of the apartment right by the elevator and, if it was shabbas, the competing chickens cooking from floor to floor.
Once a wind flooded me with memory. I had missed Autumn in New York one year and didn't realize until the following October when a wind embraced me and I remembered how much I had needed it around me. It was a memory of every Autumn I had ever lived in my hometown.
But pictures were less memories and more like stickies or little notes left to remind me of facts - a painting of childhood fairy tales, a photo by Weegee, a postcard sent by a friend reminding there was no excuse not to write.
And then opening this picture, I remembered not the facts that some guys were working on the roof across the street, but that the day was warm and the time was open and the air still hurt to breathe and I forced myself to move a defeated arm and, just like I had been taught, seek expression.
The longer road begins with a word, a word that opens the possibility of everyone being welcomed to the table. And one hopes the word and words that follow build that welcome. Sometimes it is called the law. And sometimes that law welcomes justice to the table.
There is this programme available all around the world that teaches the teachers the word and the many that follow.
Second grade you couldn't cry when punching the boy you liked who punched you first because you were teasing him too much in front of the other boys because you liked him so he had to take care of business and let you know he didn't like you even though you knew he did.
No, this was first grade. Where liking a boy wasn't on the table but teasing still was.
And when Mrs. F., the teacher chided you for being mean to one of the sweetest boys* in the class her words still held the blow of disappointment and shame for not being the best you could be. Hearts still sang with surprise and delight and tears still burst out and the squabbles of fists and words were easily healed with quiet words from teacher and a hug or a handshake between classmates.
*Mark S. where ever you are, I'm really, really sorry. I know I apologized in first grade and again many years later at the Avenue A bus stop on 14th Street, but I just wanted to let you know I meant it that second time. And I mean it now.
These were the revealed holy grail of my youth, a mountain of them at the Essex Street Market, where, as Florence got fresh fish or fruit, I stared wishing for the prerequisite penny that might release the treasures within.
Needless to say, that never happened. Candy, a verboten item, rarely crossed our palms except for brief moments during Halloween and perhaps a birthday party or a successful begging from a friend's lode.
Now, it is utterly impossible for me to pass one without putting in the prerequisite quarter.
“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.”
Another one of Dana's short New York stories. I seem to have trouble visualizing accurately how my face betrays my age. Especially when I hit a patch of exhaustion and my color drains completely. On my birthday I went to Trinity Church to hear a concert by a group called Alhambra. They specialize in Sephardic songs accompanied by very exotic instruments. Sensuous and rhythmic 14th and 15th century melodies. When they ended, I was caught in their spell. But hunger and fatigue had to be remedied. I crossed the street to a dingy pizza joint and ordered a large orange juice. Then I plopped down at a corner table to simply rest. I closed my eyes for a moment and awoke suddenly when a young Asian woman poked her nose in my face and asked tenderly “Are you all right?” followed by, “May I buy you some lunch?”
My first thought was “I really must buy a new winter coat. My God, I must look dowdy."
“No lunch, please.” I told her I was enjoying my birthday but just needed a little rest. Then I stood up and left the place. She followed me asking where I lived and how I was planning to travel home. I kept reassuring her that I would take the subway, as usual. She offered to escort me down the steps. I refused her kind help Then she put something in my right hand and ran into the crowd. I opened my hand to find a neatly folded $5 bill. I was truly shocked but also touched and somewhat ashamed at her judgment of me. Her compassion brought tears to my eyes. So that’s how I appear to her!
When I got home I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. There she was – the dear little old lady or perhaps the sad little crone needing a good meal. I swore I’d save that $5 bill forever. But I broke my vow 4 days later.
Her husband, before he was smart enough to marry her, had, as a teenager, a crush on Florence. When they all grew up, Dana and Florence and their husbands and children lived across the hall from one another on Lewis Street.
I knew Dana was the most beautiful woman I knew. And I knew this before I knew how to tie my shoe. I also knew she knew something about the world that would be essential to my survival. Perhaps it was the beautiful stones from Brazil she gave me after her trip there with her husband to help establish socialist co-op housing. Or maybe it was the tiny little Bolivian dolls given after another trip to continue developing affordable housing in South America. Or maybe it was the story book with real art as illustrations that told me there were more worlds beyond the wall of sound I heard every day from Florence's Steinway.
Whatever it was, what beamed from her heart and soul was a living example of utter enjoyment of every second of every moment to love, eat, laugh, talk, touch, live.
Today, at least 45 years after learning to tie my shoe, Dana is still the most beautiful woman I know. Or at least Number One of a very short list. And today she brought forth a story she had poured into devastating poetry. She said that when she wrote that story it saved her life. Once again, so many decades later, I learned of a world beyond the horizon of my own fear, my own pain, my own disbelief.
*The fortune cookie fortune Dana reads every morning as she fixes her hazelnut coffee.
Another one of Dana's short pieces. This really happened.
Note to Readers: You gotta know a little bit about the Village, the streets and the buses. If you have any questions, just drop a comment...
"Standing in a downpour on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street, I boarded a limited bus that would at least take me to a few blocks near my destination. My hope was to end up on Sixth Avenue and Third Street by dismounting at Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street. Not great. But doable.
It was 5pm and I needed to be at the movie theater by 5:20. The driver understood my anxiety and simply said, "Sit Down."
When the bus turned left on Eighth Street to Broadway, I was shocked. It had actually taken me even farther from my destination.
"Last stop!" he announced to all the passengers.
I was about to get off when again he said, "Sit Down."
Then he drove south on Broadway and turned right on Houston and right again on Sixth avenue heading north. I expected him to sail right past my movie. I stood up and again he ordered me to "Sit Down."
I gave up, wondering if maybe he was kidnapping me.
Then to my utter disbelief, he stopped illegally at Third and Sixth. He had taken me to a spot across the street from the movie theater!
"Bless you!" I said.
"Bless YOU! he replied. It was the one time he didn't say "Sit Down."
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.