In the middle of a miserable, rainy, packed rush-hour Lexington Line IRT, two people offered me a seat. It took a couple of days to realize they were about 30 years younger than me. It only took a few seconds to say thank you and sit down.
I hate standing.
But Florence, easily 20 to 30 years older than I am today, would refuse the multiple offers a cute white haired old lady always got, stamping her feet indignantly "No!". As if the offer challenged her ferocious lunge at another day to recapture the lost time and the old dreams.
Many called for unified action, others called for compromise and one or two called for different forms of destruction, though only between the lines.
But this leader of a small island, beleaguered by crisis and challenges, sang words of peace and dreams and sent blessings to the City of New York for welcoming in, once again, the gathering of hope for a better world.
Faye is there with her grandson. Her husband, Leslie is now gone a year at least. That means she'll be able to say kaddish at the services next week for him. All I see is that day he boasted how she was the smartest math teacher in the world as she gently put his arm into his jacket. They both survived the war and the camps but met each other here in New York when they came to start a new life, a new year.
Faye is now drained, her eyes watery. She may be facing 90 but she can't quite see it. Her grandson talks animatedly to her, like he is trying to live six lives for her so she isn't so damn lonely dieing without the man she loves.
I go over to say Good Yontiv. The grandson tells me he now is in Los Angeles. No, not the TV business. His girlfriend got into rabbinical school. Thank G-d, I say. Faye beams.
Five men yell and laugh in the back. The Right this, the Left that, Stalinism and....
Doc skips in. Pierogis and kielbasi and little cups of soup. Sour cream, sauteed onions, I have a chocolate egg cream. Talk pours out faster than delicious rain from another season, mothers and lovers and hopes and grief and hunger and peace and dreams. Desire.
For a new year for a new year for a new year.
The men all laugh and voices rise into chords from a Schoenberg symphony. Suddenly a glass breaks on the tile floor.
"Mazel Tov!" we shout to them.
"What!? Now you're married!?" one shouts back.
"No! You're married." we retort.
Faye's grandson is waving to me from the door. I jump up, a kiss on Faye's cheek. She says, pointing to him, kvelling like crazy, "This is my grandson." I don't say I know you told me. I just grin a billion smiles for her so maybe the joy evaporates her permanent tears. I feel my own eyes soften with age each second.
Doc makes me laugh just when I'm swallowing mushroom barley. We talk about all the meals we ate on Yom Kippur. I win. Two years ago from the 35th Street Chinese bakery a pork bun for breakfast before I realized I was eating tref on the holiest of the holies. She's runner up because she made dinner reservations this year for right after the fasting begins.
Since it's between Rosh Hoshanna and Yom Kippur, we don't count the kielbasi.
The men, windbreakser, comfy shoes, relaxed pants, those faces we know in our fathers our uncles our neighbors our lives.
One says, "you sure we're not married?"
"You are," we say. "But to him..." pointing to his old friend.
"What? You thought you were going to be happy?"
"Wasn't the first two times...."
"Good night, girls," they call to us, leaving with little bags of dessert or dinner.
"Good night, Good Yontiv, shona tova, a happy new year..."
Voltaire published his book secretively. A satire, it was sure to piss off the mediocre assholes who thought their new clothes made them look smart. Or rich. Or thin. Sure enough, Candide was a hit and the assholes banned it. But does anyone remember their names or even care?
In those early days of learning to raise myself, these diners were breakfast, lunch and dinner.
They were the kitchen I didn't know how to cook in.
They were dining room I knew how to sit in.
They were the counters where I drank coffee all night and made friends over cigarettes.
They were the quiet corners I wrote awful poetry and promising books.
They were the theater of neighbors' doings and the place of street-life commerce.
They were conference rooms when art needed to be discussed and plans needed to be made.
And more important than not, they were often where I began journeys toward love, wooing and being wooed over soup and easy eggs, sometimes in deep night, sometimes in mornings after.
The University Diner was one such place.
They close Wednesday.
So I thank you, University Diner for the many meetings taken in the window booths, the breakfast specials when the blues descended and home fries were necessary, the 2:00 am tea at the counter where I learned how I mistook lies for love, and a Thanksgiving dinner, resplendent with canned cranberry sauce and pearl necklaces, a dinner so warm and welcoming, it felt more like home than any holiday/family dinner I had ever had before.
In Lieu of Flowers... was originally posted on October 1, 2008 as an obituary for Florence who had died the previous morning. Since Rosh Hoshanah appears in the English calendar differently each year, she in death has become as unpredictable as she was in life. Wouldn't have it any other way.
In Lieu of Flowers...
Tell the truth.
Tell yourself the truth.
Don't let your bullshit compromise either of the above.
Don't lie. Unless you're drunk. Then really don't lie.
Look fabulous in your own clothes. They may have started out as hand-me-downs but they're yours now. Proudly recount their lineage. Never feel ashamed about that.
Never take a taxi.
Don't wear a coat in winter.
Carry your own weight to the point of pathology. Better to err on independence than not.
Refuse to lose at the hands of cowardliness, mediocrity, stupidity, and the need to blend in.
Suffer aloneness at the risk of fitting in with any of the above.
Refuse to feel fear. If you do, ignore it and keep going. Just like Florence did that night during a World War II blackout under the Manhattan Bridge by the movie theater (now a Chinese market).
Always put your work first.
Always do your work.
Always put your work first.
Always do your work.
Rage against the Machine. Even when it looks like it's related to you.
Risk being laughed at by morons when you do something no one else is doing. Just like when Florence put on those roller skates in 1972 and skated up and down Grand Street and all those people laughed at her and then a couple of years every one had disco skates.
Start your entire life over at 60 like you were a 14 year old. Because on some level, you still are.
Fight back just like Florence did all the times someone mugged her or tried to mug her during the 1970's.
Don't EVER quit.
Know that that beer, that sandwich, those shoes, that jacket, those pants, that avenue, that movie house, that proper grammar, that street, that bar, that woman, that dance, that etude, that sonata, that scale, that subway, that bus, that hotdog, that boardwalk, that beach, that ocean is Your New York.
I got into the cab all heartbroken, because that was my constant state of being in those halcyon low-tech days before loneliness gotten hidden by the smokescreen of the internet.
On my way to a small shoot, a vintage dress and heels and tons of make-up piled on my lap, I was in no mood to pretend to be romantically torn by forbidden love for the artistic screen.
But I had been asked by the filmmaker I liked (versus the one who didn't even bother to learn my name) and I'd be dancing with a favorite friend of mine to a slow 1950's love song.
So, after scribbling a secret message on the door of the cab for who I thought was the love of my life, I stared out the window. And that's when I noticed it.
Oh there were a billion versions of New York cloudy gray skies, but this wasn't one of them. I had only seen a gray sky so filled with such light in Nijmegen, a city in the Netherlands no one outside of it ever heard of.
I loved that city. It was the Philadelphia of Holland. A good friend lived there and it was where I'd go to escape what seemed like unending unhappiness. And although I may not have known how to pronounce any of the street names in Nijmegen, I knew how to find my favorite little corners.
I was so happy, staring out that window, to be some place else, if only for a brief second, that wasn't filled with self incrimination.
...when out of nowhere, the cab driver said, "The sky looks like Europe."
"I was just thinking that. I was thinking it reminded me of a city in Holland where a friend lives."
"My brother lives in Holland!"
"Oh, you wouldn't know it."
"No, tell me."
The frites shop his brother owned and ran was one of my favorite little corners, one I visited every day for lunch.
Upstairs heard the fire alarm go off and called their next door who called all the phone numbers they had and when we didn't answer any of them, they called downstairs who had the keys...
Afterwards, everyone said oh don't worry, they had done that too and one even carried around a little kitchen timer because these days remembering anything was a thing of the past.
I was just grateful that someone pulled the cat from underneath the chair and carried him out to the hallway where all the neighbors kept him company until the smoke cleared and it was safe to go back in.
It takes a village to raise a child, and sometimes it takes a village to accompany someone to their end. But in between birth and death, the village takes care that everyone, including the cat, is OK.
Rodriguez at the Highline Ballroom in New York City
It may have taken many years for his road to lead him back to what he was born to do, but the failures along the way never defined him. A spirit unassailable, he was who he was, whether he was singing to thousands or doing back-breaking manual labor.
It is a lesson fiercely clutched while living through unseen years and warring with words that ebbed and flowed like killing tornadoes and brutal drought.
They played chess and sometimes checkers but mostly chess on these stone boards.
We were always told NEVER to go into The Men's Park. So of course we did. Not a lot, but enough to feel like we were breaking rules and tempting fate. Once there, The Men utterly ignored us as we hung around the chess table, bored out of our minds with a stupid game that didn't include punching and running really fast. The Men weren't too thrilled either with sweaty, snotty, fidgeting dirty kids interrupting their concentration.
I could see the canopy of trees in that park from my bedroom window. Bigger than the rest of the trees in the playground, they were the clock of the seasons. Glimpses of green would let me know when summer was coming. And then all too soon, hints of wind and leaves getting darker with other colors, when summer was preparing to leave.
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.