Paula, an old, dear friend is the twinkle in a witty observance and the soft of a breeze. She has repeatedly dazzled and inspired me with emails filled with poems and photos from her life that sing the secret heart of soul, cat or others.
I thought Madeline lived in a neighborhood somewhere near me. That's because the ubiquitous fields of ivy covered both our landscapes. Took me a little while to figure out Paris was not in Brooklyn or above 14th Street.
In later years, an explosion of potato plants and coleuses and lots of lawn-like patches appeared as the city transformed into a manicured and remodeled visiting destination and/or exclusive enclave. Or whatever kind of locale needed constant landscaping.
I didn't realize what I had missed all these years until yesterday, when I opened my eyes and saw a rolling stretch of ivy. I was back in the soft, cool shade of wishing I could visit Madeline.
On Delancey, right next door to Frank's hair salon, there was a little newspaper-candy-cigarette stand. The old man owner never really shaved or if he did it was a couple of days ago.
On the visits to Frank's a couple of times a year or returning from the weekly shop at the Essex Street Market, that candy shop beckoned like a mini-Ali Baba's cave, promising magical and spectacular candies. But the firm rule of no sweets, rare gum and a once-a-week hostess cupcake/ cola at Grammas held. That, however, didn't stop my six year-old heart from longingly dreaming of having my way with every delight in that shop.
And then one day...
Florence, fresh from a cut, nothing much else - she was one of the rare ladies in the neighborhood who didn't dye or tease - was buying a New York Times or maybe a pack of cigarettes and, in the brief second she looked the other way, my hand zipped up to the window counter and quickly slipped a penny stick of gum into my pocket.
Perhaps I took it out and started chewing it or was admiring it or transferring it to a safer pocket, but somehow Florence saw that stick of gum in my sweaty little palm and, and knowing SHE'D never allow an unauthorized piece of gum onto my daily menu and that I had no obvious means of income to buy anything, demanded to know where I had gotten that piece of gum.
She had taught me never to tell a lie.
I was marched right back to the candy store and there I apologized to the candy story owner and then, shamed but with great reluctance, returned that single stick of penny gum.
I had high school and college friends who lived there, but it was an island of incomprehensible circles that really didn't quite reach 360 degrees, so if I went there, it could have only been a couple of times and I think we needed someone to guide us in.
Then one night in the 80's someone I really shouldn't have been kissing took me there to kiss. It was the only place in the city where you could go to in the middle of the night and kiss and because nobody was there nobody saw you. And the mugging risk was only medium-high
After that fiasco ended, I found myself returning during the day and then other nights and then more days and then soon, if I wanted to get away from the city but not suffer a long commute, I came here. And soon I took friends and family and the people I got to love, not just kiss under cover of darkness.
These days, the fountain is fixed up, there are tons more plants and flowers and birds and dogs. And sitting in cool night on an old bench, also fixed up or maybe a new bench that was made to just look old, there are tons of people kissing.
Coming back from someplace not often ventured to from the Lower East Side, maybe a concert or a walk to Chinatown or even 'uptown', we'd walked the normal gamut of sidewalks lined with neighbors and strangers alike.
Now, bars line nearby streets and nobody looks out. They're looking at TVs or each other or their cell phone, seeing nothing, noticing no one, missing everything.
Rostropovich, with a full sweep of his bow, poured out Bach in front of this wall that, before the world's eyes, was being dissolved by hammers and picks and the words of thousands of angry people, fed up with borders that broke or crushed or killed. Friends told me I stayed glued to the TV, insisting we should all be there to support this moment of history.
Years later, that wall disappeared into tourist souvenirs pieces, sold at flea markets and fairs and I even bought some as gifts for a few dear friends.
But it didn't die. That wall reappeared in other lands and in many hearts. And the endless efforts to bring it down happens day after day and night after night, maybe not with hammers and picks, but always with words.
It's hard to see them, but look as closely as you can into that little corner.
It is summer and the babies have hatched. As they have for the last thirty-six years, maybe even before, like when Bernard Hermann was growing up here dreaming music that could fill a movie screen or even when Sidor Belarsky lived here, his arias soaring up to the high ceilings, like the young sax player who now lives on the 2nd Floor and practices to open windows.
In between the music that fills the building now, it's the cooing and chirping I listen for, especially in summer.
The street filled with all these happy men throwing up ropes that magically reappeared as a ladder.
I had never seen a tree get climbed. Not in real life. Maybe in picture books of kids who didn't look like anyone I knew. Those picture book trees looked like they had steps and the trees I grew up with were tall and thin and had no steps and they lived behind barriers that said don't walk on the grass and don't touch anything if you accidentally do walk on the grass.
The trees on the block I had lived on for 36 years always reminded me of the socialite ladies in New Yorker cartoons. Tall and elegant and certainly not to be climbed. These big guys just scampered up.
"What are you doing?"
"Looking for Asian Beetles."
"We are checking all the trees in New York City."
"All of them?"
"Yeah. We're almost done. It took five years."
The guys told me the trees I respectfully hadn't climbed for 36 years were called London Plane and the pretty ones that told me spring was here by their pink-white flowers were Ornamental Pear Trees.
All I could think was what a great job. What a great, great job.
On one of the last summer nights there, I took advantage of his distraction by a book of jokes he had read dozens of times. Quickly opening drawers and closets, pulling out more dirty linens and clothes for yet another load of laundry, an unexpected box festooned with holiday cheer appeared.
There inside were all the bow ties he had worn to work, day in, day out, year after year, being a father, being a husband, being a provider, being an on-time employee, no matter what the heat or the cold or the rage or the loneliness brought.
When I got old enough to know my colors and tall enough to peer into his bureau's drawer, I got to pick out which one he'd wear that day. I did that until I left home. And he continued to wear them until that company, after twenty-five years, fired him.
He must of brought these bow ties to California, optimistic and hopeful there would be opportunities to wear them, maybe with joy, maybe in love, maybe toward happiness.
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.