On Florence's last Saturday, I pried my fingers out of her tightly held grasp and said I had to go. She asked me to stay but I had nothing left inside and needed to go home to nothing so I could start all over again. So I said what I knew she'd absolutely understand. I said I had to go home and work.
She said it the way we had all been raised to say it. Your Work was more important than anything. It was more important than love or family or illness or even death. In fact, when her mother died, Florence delayed the necessary next steps because she was inundated with work and rehearsals and teaching and supporting Louise for her senior recital.
That last Saturday was balmy so I got what I always got at this bakery on Grand Street. One pork bun and a cup of tea with milk and sugar. Then I sat in Chrystie Park and watched all the men I never grew up with run around the soccer field.
For years, I repeatedly asked myself if I could have stayed longer. A friend who is a funeral director says, "Don't chew." There are many cows in her country so this makes sense.
Now, lovely people live in Florence's old home and there are other lovely people looking to buy Florence's old home. An irreversible process has begun.
For only the second time since I cleaned out this place, I visited. I said things and I heard things. At some point there was nothing left and I headed to the Boat that took me to a quieter neighborhood and a kinder night and a bed I couldn't have dreamed of in my insomnia.
On the way, I stopped in at the bakery. It was not an homage or nostalgia. It was simply what one did after visits like that.
The weather too rainy and cold, I sat inside with my usual cup of tea and pork bun and listened to a gaggle of men talk, laugh, argue, and I suspect check the racing sheets. Their chatter of Tagalog and English felt likeChristmas lights to me - bright and dancing.
One day in March of 2008, I started writing the city I knew as intimately as I knew Florence. And found I barely knew either. When you are home, when you are in family, it is as normal as breathing and yet as mysterious as prayer.
The few remaining old buildings in the garment district are surrounded by glossy ice towers where clothes are only worn, not made. Very little life appears in those sleek cliffs. But as the evening blooms, so do the lights in this window. I don't know what is going on in there but it feels as familiar as the room that held Florence's world.
Much had happened since she was last here. She had moved from the cornfields back to family and water and light that had always been her home.
Much had happened here. Love had come to stay and what had once been harsh walls now sparkled and danced.
So a table was set for old friends and new, and, just as she had all these many past decades, she kept me company while I cooked the only dish I knew how to make, now organic thanks to Trader Joe's.
** Northern Italian Lemon Roasted Chicken
One whole organic chicken roaster 4 to 6 organic lemons tons of whole organic garlic cloves olive oil, salt and pepper to taste
Peel the garlic cloves. Pierce the lemons all over. Shove as many lemons and garlic cloves as possible inside the chicken. Stick a whole much of garlic between the skin and the meat of the chicken and in between the limbs. Put in a covered roasting pan and bake until it's done. That means the leg separates easily from the body. If you want you can take the lid off for the last 10-20 minutes to get the chicken a bit crispy.
Then set the table and gather your friends and eat and drink and laugh and love, and know home is where the heart is and the heart is always home.
After years of banging unmoored pieces of wood back into their proper holes, the bench, a beloved place of haven, surrendered. Armrests snapped off. Legs wobbled dangerously. Sitting became a risk.
There was no tradition of home repairs growing up on Grand Street. A visitor remarked once that if there was something not working or in the way, we'd step around it or just avoid that spot altogether. In fact, unlike most of America, going to a therapist was within the realm of possibilities. Fixing a piece of furniture was not.
The healing from one's childhood reveals itself in unique ways. Some take up a new language or a new lover or a new country. I took up liquid nails.
I was 17 and moving up at my first office job. Every department, except sales, was filled with bright young women wearing the latest in 70's fashion - clunky shoes and severe panty lines present in high-waist flared trousers.
It was my first day in the customer service department, and I was set to the task of checking the computer read-outs of the new, highly advanced computers. The first on the block!
Lunch loomed and all of a sudden the many young women in customer services whipped out lipsticks and purses. "You're coming, right?" one asked me. "Where?" I answered.
A billion faces stared at me in disbelief.
"The bar. It's St. Patty's."
"I thought you were Irish."
"Oh. I thought you were Jewish."
And with that cleared up, I found myself for the first time in the middle of a packed Irish bar, drinking a double rye and learning old songs on the spot.
Yuki's bag We met literally on international ground.
Even though she was being just as polite as everyone else, there was something about her that felt very familiar. I, on the other hand, was not just a fish out of water. I was a big fish out of water in a teeny tiny china shop and it was all I could do to sit still and keep my mouth shut so I wouldn't get fired on my first day of work.
But rushing down a sweeping corrider filled with priceless art and important people, out of nowhere she said, "Have you noticed everyone here is so fucking polite?!"
To which all I could do in a flood of relief was say, "Oh Thank God. You're a fucking New Yorker!"
NATIVE NEW YORKER New York City girl New York City New York City girl You grew up ridin' the subways, runnin' with people Up in Harlem, down on Broadway You're no tramp, but you're no lady Talkin' that street talk You're the heart and soul of New York City
The bookshelf with all the Charles Addams books was in the adult section of the Seward Park Library. On the occasions I went with Florence she'd park me on a little wooden stool used by bigger people to reach higher places, stick a Charles Addams book in my hands, and then drift off to somewhere else.
I would sit there for hours, pouring over every picture, believing the secrets of life were being revealed to me.
I think it was Jeremiah's (Vanishing New York) idea to "cash mob" a local business. That's when a whole bunch of people all show up at the same time and patronize the business.
Everybody wanted Ray's. That's the candy-newspaper shop where, in 1971 or 2, I used to stop by after babysitting on 22nd Street. It was often the only place on Avenue A with lights on. Ray's, being a little hole in the wall, will be another night.
Between bites of challah grilled cheese, blintzes, kielbasi, pierogis and borscht, we assured one another that great revolutions often started with just a few brilliant minds and some really good food.
And Danny, happily giving out separate checks, got cashed by our mob. Now it's your turn.
Not having a car or knowing how to drive one was not a big deal. My father learned late in life because he got transferred to Long Island. "A reverse commute. No traffic," he'd state Yoda-like. Still, he never liked driving, and would say as much with that unique "weight-of-the-world" terminal uniqueness that made it sound like he was preparing to face Goliath and we should never forget what he had to sacrifice in order to put food on the table.
It took me twenty years and three attempts to get my license. Branded in what's left of my 1976 memory is a certain point on 14th Street where my then-driving instructor ordered me to do a U-turn during early morning rush hour. Of course, I stalled the car smack across the dividing line.
So I have become an expert on being a relaxed, happy passenger on the rare road trips I'm coaxed into. Good at changing the radio station, maintaining interesting chatter and never participating in front or back seat driving.
All the while looking for anything that reminds me of home.
Florence (right side of guy) on her day off at Grossingers'
During the late thirties and throughout War World II, Florence worked as a waitress. For someone who loathed domestic work, was a terrible cook and, although charming, wasn't exactly a people person, her choice had more to do with what was available to a young woman in those days rather than what she was good at.
Yet those years of serving procured her a bicycle on D-Day or V-Day or one of those victory days, and the Steinway piano she lived in until her death.
Years later, after a divorce severed a steady flow of money, Florence was suddenly faced with new financial matters as many women of her generation were when traditional structures crumbled.
As she stumbled to her independent feet, one of her first jobs was stocking cans at a supermarket and handing out teacher-evaluation forms at Hunter College, a school she attended for her Bachelors'. With a few more private students, she kept herself afloat.
The menial jobs were nothing to her. They were there for only one purpose. To support that daily battle of sitting down and being what she was - an artist.
*** A series on job hunting and gainful employment.
It used to be you had to show up at the HR office or the agency. Sit in waiting rooms that ranged from shabby, duct-taped chairs to sleek modern lines heralding the cutting edge of 1970s interior design. And hope the company was willing to interview you.
*** A series on job hunting and gainful employment.
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.