The sign on the door said "Careful - wet paint in hallway". Clearly the work hadn't begun.
The peeling paint off the wall and the cigarette butts and empty packs littering the stairs - it was just like home when home was anywhere me and my friends could be who or what we were or weren't.
It makes sense in new nice neighborhoods rising from factories into tri-plex multi-million dollar lofts with triple pane windows and spectacular views that hallways get to change too.
Before paint and work erased yet another haven, normal to us, a quick glimpse, remembering littering stairs, smoking, and glaring at the people, stepping over kids like me and my friends, as they trudged up and down heading from work to street to more work to life that didn't include multi-million dollar nothing.
The old chairs inherited from Florence, the beat-up table left by a old friend and roommate in 1979, the table clothes found at yard sales in 1998, the dishes collected over twenty-five years from different restaurant closings, the forks a moving neighbor left up for grabs in the lobby, the vase carried back from Spain in 1988, the serving spoons Florence got from Mrs. Applebaum's apartment when she died in 1981, wine glasses quickly purchased today from the thrift store across the street....
Then me and the Mariner opened the door and let the cat out to greet friends who over two or eight or twelve or 18 or 37 years joined in once again to welcome another birthday.
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.
I was too busy standing up and singing along and being proud to be an American, included in that word like never before, to take a picture of the television. This is from the New York Times.
On days like this, remembering that the promise of the Constitution wasn't just for some but for all of us, I miss Florence a lot. She would have heard that this land was her land too, not just parts of the Village or a couple of friends' living rooms.
And on days like this, I wish my gramma and my bubby were here to see this. They fled from the Old Country to the New World because of the promise of the Constitution. They would have heard that the promise wasn't just words, but real lives thriving.
Look! A woman justice swearing in the Vice President!
Look! Us and all our family and friends and neighbors and co-workers in the crowd, on the podium, everywhere. It's not just that scumbag Republican who gets to be there. We do too!
Listen! That's Brooklyn up there, where our families lived before moving to the lower east side, and that's our anthem, sung like it was meant to be sung!
But most of all, my gramma and my bubby would have heard "Thank you".
The long road of their flight from that Old Country to this New World had not been in vain, even with the brutal poverty and horrible violence and crazy-ass people hating them because of what they were, not who they were.
They took that long road and, because of that, their granddaughter, standing up proud in front of the television, gets to live in a country that allows her the freedom to vote, to protest against the government, to own property if she can ever afford it, to practice the religion of her choice, to fight for change so the promise of the Constitution continues to be for all, not just some, and to love who she damn well feels like loving.
Shona Tova, Shona Tova, a new year for all of us, a new year, indeed.
Both sides of the family have a long relationship with bialies.
My dad's family came from or through Bialystok on their way to the new world. My dad and his brother, Uncle George were bar mitzvah'ed at the Bialystok Synagogue on Willet between Grand and Columbia. They all ate bialies.
Florence grew up over Kossar's, the bialy store when it was still on Hester Street. It moved around the corner to Grand when Dana's husband, George convinced everyone to trade the tenements for nice high-rises that had hot water and plumbing inside the apartments. They all ate bialies too.
Kossars always closed for Shabbos. So, during summertime, me, Cindy and B. would wait until sunset and then some, and then stroll down to the store on Grand and Essex and get the first hot, fresh bialies straight from the ovens. It was - pre-breasts and boys - the highlight of our Saturday nights.
Come to think of it, it was - post-breasts and boys - still the highlight of our Saturday nights .
The store changed hands but the bialies didn't. Ok, maybe a bit more doughy but the one time I complained to the counter guy they weren't cooked as much as they used to be, he yelled at me to toast them if I wanted them crunchier.
Then one day someone suggested I give up gluten. She said that everything ailing me sounded more like gluten was the problem rather than early dementia, laziness or inferior genes. I reluctantly said goodbye to most of what I loved and ate and things improved.
Bread, bread and butter, bread and gravy, bread and anything, pasta, more bread, cake, bagels and most of all, bialies became more and more relegated to the past. However, so did all those annoying problems I thought were early dementia, laziness or inferior genes.
However, there are several ways to connect to one's well-being and one of them is the spiritual reunion with one's people and the past. So, one night, late and tired, braving the cold, I took a trip to Kossar's and got a bialy.
And even though the next day was hell, that meal was the best of many, many meals over many, many months.
When it comes to writing or music or painting or dance or any other hellish vocation you are condemned to do, there is no end. The "going off into the sunset" of movies never happens. Except when you die. Then there's a sunset, but you're dead so you don't know the sun is going down on you. Beginning
can feel futile, especially if finishing feels like death and not
finishing feels like death that won't come. Either way, the terror of
sitting down to find out only makes those options worse. When I was still imprisoned in music studies, Florence would order "Répétez!" and demand "Commence!" When I escaped clef notes and bar lines into words and paragraphs, she'd say, "You know writing is really just rewriting", and "Sitting down is half the battle." She also said, "Show me a dirty house and I'll show you a woman of character." Thanks, Mom. But, I had to clean the house first.
My sister and I never thought "oh that's art" as we passed it every day on our way to school or violin lessons or, in my case, jump rope. Looking at those three women was like looking at a family photo - as normal and intimate as maybe the way my friends with televisions looked at the Brady Bunch.
The only thought either of us had was "oh, is that Mommy?" We were not talking the rich looking ladies there.
Later, after we stopped calling her Mommy, Florence would bitterly laugh as she recounted how we repeatedly asked her if that was her. She also laughed bitterly about how people told her she looked like Katherine Hepburn. Clearly, she had a couple of looks.
Finding out years later "The Critic" was, in fact, art was like finding out your favorite kindergarten teacher had found the cure for cancer (she didn't). Or that your sweet, funny uncle was a brilliant rocket scientist (he actually was).
And then after that, I found out Weegee had, in fact, given Florence that picture himself. Hard to get the straight story on it - there were several.
He gave out prints to pretty girls on the lower east side as a matter of course, so it was no big deal.
He was crazy for Florence and wrote her a love letter which got separated from the photo when she had it reframed.
The letter was sealed up when she got it framed, and if we unframed it, all would be revealed.
The only thing I ever really asked of Florence was to give me the picture when it was time to be given. She was hiding decline, but knew something was up.
"Take it now," she said.
"No, it's yours and it belongs in your home. Just put a note on the back of the picture."
On the untouched backing, still sealed as it had been when it was reframed probably in the 1950s, there's a pink stickie taped there that says 'This will belong to Claire'.
I finally went through the two boxes of letters from Florence's life that I had hidden away years ago after I brought the rest of her estate home.
The first box was packed with a ton of handwritten mystery notes, both in her elegant penmanship, and in others. Pictures of people we clearly weren't related to, obits of girlhood friends, two 1934 post cards from an uncle hiding out in Ubekistan from the anti-semites in Kiev, poems and letters from the girl she grew up with the one she loved, my father who she never spoke to again after 1977, my sister's missives from age three into her 50's, and attempts from me to either be a good daughter or to break through to something akin to understanding. It was a collage of her life. Up to a point.
The second box was after that point. Packed with greeting cards warbling love and pop-out hearts and cute animals professing forever-yours, piles of letters from her and from a lover twisting in desire and missing and sharing of the day, and notebook pages and pages scrawled by a furious spurned girlfriend sobbing, raging, pleading, demanding, begging, defending a relationship that suddenly didn't work anymore. No matter what card was open, what letter unfolded, desire and pain opened and unfolded with it.
There are few, if any, such letters in any boxes I have tucked away. Everything in the past decades have become more and more immediate and transient, allowing a history to be easily deleted into electronic garbage pails. And the mysteries of love gone bad or good or just gone have been unraveled through modern versions of therapy and self-help and Oprah.
These days offer the zen of Now, a space between 'then' and 'soon'. In that cradle of peace and with some clicks on a keyboard, a living letter appears in a friend's face, a letter that lasts as long as words are spoken. That unshackled moment might be made at the price of a story constructed from colorful animal pictures that get piled into a box, but, staring at all those letters and cards and notes, I was left just as puzzled by the secrets that died with Florence as perhaps anyone, seeking answers about me. might be staring into blank screens and electronic garbage pails, only to find them empty. ** Related Posts:
Jim Hendrix moved to New York when anyone not rich could. He knew the East Village streets were where he would continue becoming who he was inside.
Uliana also moved to New York when anyone not rich could. She knew the East Village streets were where she'd continue becoming who she was inside.
Before she headed east and village, a friend gave her this photo of Hendrix because he knew she loved Hendrix. Where ever she lived in New York, it hung on her wall.
She wasn't a musician, but just like Hendrix could make a guitar sing like never before, Uliana could make women's beauty (and a couple of men) sing like never before.
She was a sculptor, a painter and a magician when it came to hair. She'd eye your head, pick up those scissors and brilliant music would pour out into the world. Afterwards, you'd look in the mirror and see how you were always meant to look like. It's just that before Uliana touched you, you had never seen it.
Real estate and life and years and the East Village changing, at some point Uliana needed to move her Hair Salon to a new location, but she didn't want to move off 9th Street. A real estate agent showed her a basement space only a couple of doors down.
Uliana didn't know what it was, but something about the space felt just right.
"Did you know Jimi Hendrix used to live here?", the real estate agent told her.
Every seven years rushing to the movie house to find out what happened next.
Then last time - 49 UP - we noticed there was a lot of gray hair in line. It was no longer a great series of documentaries. It was us.
And seven years after that, counting the days, rewatching 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 during a week long marathon, getting in line almost as long as Les Miserable (but way more interesting), talking to two thirty-something, they were still just watching a documentary, but we were waiting to re-visit our heroes, peek into a mirror, see familiar touchstones of daily life in the fifth or sixth decade of life.
The piles of boxes, metal shelving units, the beat-up floors and every possible piece of merchandise made out of cloth packing every square inch - these were the stores we knew just like we knew Macy's or Kleins or Gimbels or, if you needed something really nice, B. Altman's.
This one is one of the very few left on Orchard Street. Surrounded by art galleries with incomprehsible crap in their windows and boutiques selling clothes that looked like what my grandparents wore, only a billion times more expensive.
This store has sheets. Cotton sheets. Last year, another walk down the stairs to the florescent-lit cavern, the sad-looking lady, old-time orthodox, younger than me, but looking like my Bubbie, sold me a great fitted one for just $10.
"You look like a nice couple, you need shirts? I got very good quality dress shirts?"
The Mariner got a great shirt for $25. He couldn't say no to that lethal combination of sad-complimenting-Bubbie-looking lady.
A year later, I needed sheets. Cotten sheets. I had splurged on a set at Marshalls during another Dad visit in my defensive-stress-busting-shopping activities. The sheets sucked. Clearly, if I wanted good ones I was going to have to go back to the old neighborhood to get them.
She hadn't changed a bit. Younger than me, still looked like my Bubbie. Pulling out piles of plastic bricks filled with matching sheets and pillow cases. "This is a nice one, Bloomingdales."
"You like this one?"
"Sateen, don't want sateen."
"Sateen? No. Cotten. What about these? Wash beautiful, people tell me."
"They're ugly too. I like this one."
With the extra pillow cases, $40 and she wouldn't bargain.
Then, with a look at the Mariner, she said, "You look like a nice couple, you need shirts? I got very good quality..."
The first real New Years had also been in Central Park. We were 13, or 14, or even 15 years old. There was a party and not just any party but one with boys and after we all gathered at the 72nd Street apartment to shake hands and see who was cute, we headed off to the bandshell to dance to a rock and roll band.
The park was practically empty. After all, it was 1973. But who cared! We jumped up and down in rain puddles, thrilled about the years to come. Nothing felt as good as my very first kiss with that cute boy that night. That quickly changed when my friend's mother caught me necking with that cute boy and let me know exactly what kind of girl I was. New Years and kissing didn't feel that good for a long, long time.
Three decades later, the park way way less empty and much more busy on New Years Eve. After all it was 1999.
A couple of hundred runners danced about in costumes ready for a 2-mile trot and fireworks. Generous friends had invited me along, knowing my 39th year had been a high-speed fiery descent to bottom. I remember standing in the crowd of healthy, tall runners who were all shouting happy wishes for the run-into-the-new-year and thinking "I must become the joy I want because I sure as hell am not going to be joy just standing here this depressed in a crowd of skinny tall healthy people shouting joy."
I barely made the two miles, jogging in practically last after the group of 95 year olds who were basically strolling along. But,with each aching miserable plop of my feet I vowed through gritted teeth I'd never have that bad a year again.
A vow takes time.
It was fourteen years later than that joyless New Years and literally four decades after my first real New Years kiss. A New Year had come, the park now packed with billions of people, and trillions of runners, After all, it was 2013.
The fireworks like zillions of umbrellas bursting colors above our heads, good friends, their children, the promise of a new year and the gratitude of a damn good past one, me and the Mariner danced and shouted joy and kissed with delight a new year, a new year, shona tova, a new year.
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.