Like the 2006 photograph of Britney Spears’s labia, the woman’s wallet peeked out of her jacket pocket.
I leaned over and said, "Miss, your wallet is going to get stolen."
She gave me that thank-fuck-you look, the favorite glare of all those who just moved here and thought they had street cred because they went into the neighborhood’s last remaining bodega down the street from their luxury condo.
I shrugged, went back to watching the subway fly by local stops.
But inside, I cursed Florence and the day she caught me stealing a stick of penny gum from the newspaper-candy store on Delancey Street, had me apologize to the owner and then made me promise never to steal again.
Except for the nicely dressed lady lying on the ground by Greeley Square. Between the serious men's clothing store and the Dunkin Donut.
There are a lot of people over her making sure her shopping bags and her purse are O.K. There is a cup of something by her and the security guy or police chief or whatever he is is talking into a walkie-talkie.
Me and two guys hang out on the curb by the flower pots and watch a skinny homeless guy shout at the crowd. He looks like the guy who kicked me in the ass when I bumped into him on a rainy day. Wouldn't be surprised if it were. This is his neighborhood.
The two guys said that she began to fall and the homeless guy caught her and was shouting GET HELP GET HELP and once non-homeless guys showed up and shooed him away he got upset. After all, he was there first and just because he was homeless didn't mean he was less of a hero.
The daily convoy of twenty-five blaring police cars roar up Sixth Avenue. None stop.
"She fell. Her heart, her blood pressure or diabetic. They give her an orange juice with some sugar. Look, she is fine."
A third man joins us. His patter sounds like poems made of rain on a roof. When I ask if it is Arabic, his friend nods. "I speak Danish too. And Spanish and English and Arabic."
We look across the street at the woman again. Two ambulances come as she sits up and talks on her cell phone.
One of the guys says to me, "We are nothing. A heart or something and we fall... we are nothing."
His accent still thick with the lower east side, he is no longer an anomaly in this senior restricted condominium. We saw many non-blond people at both malls.
Still, during his brief confinement, the hospital staff all spoke in Disney sing-song melodies to comfort and beguile his misery made worse by a mind beginning to leave real time.
While wondering how one could beg for sex passionately in such a Snow White voice, I marveled at the private room and the computer networks and the wireless equipment and the very polite sick people, quietly waiting their turn. There were no screaming addicts in his ER world.
Schneller lived on the sixth floor. She still had her German accent but not her lips. Those she painted on like a Jackson Pollack. Which she did every day before taking her post in the late afternoon on a wobbly folding chair outside the building. Warm days only.
Her hair was thinning and dyed something like inhuman red and she no longer had the shape of a person – it was more like a toad with tiny legs sticking out. The only rumor I ever heard about her was that the building had been in her family’s and that her lover had died in World War II. Clearly she had never gotten over it.
She rented several of the grand old apartments out as SROs, weekly linens included, to a gaggle of old men.
Tommy looked like Popeye - tough, butch, muscled and toothless, a cigarette always dangling from his lips. He guarded the building at night, hanging out on the stoop, making sure the heroin addicts didn’t steal the lobby’s chandlers again. The ones we had were the crappy replacements of the real ones worth a lot more than the couple of bags they had gotten selling them.
Jimmy was Sinatra in a snappy fedora - if Sinatra couldn’t sing, was old, short and a fourth-rate bookie. He coughed a lot. That’s when smoking was only a nasty habit.
Mr. Martinez studiously collected stamps, was very, very short and very, very gentle. He got beat up and ripped off a lot but we weren’t sure by who. He put a padlock on his room. But he said it didn’t help.
None of us spoke to Mr. Lee unless we had to. One year he left the shower running.
We all put out our garbage in the hallway every night to get picked up by Otis, a stooped six-foot dark Black man who lived in the basement and socialized with the middle-aged overweight blond hooker from 11th Street who couldn't decide if she was Ukrainian or Puerto Rican. She kept changing her name, accent and hair color each week.
With a good deal of cheap booze, Otis had reduced his life to a tiny moment of feeling no pain. There were many many walls of congeniality and smiling dumb. Even that night at 3 a.m. when I ran into him with his hooker friend. He gave me the exact same smile he gave me when I bumped into him picking the nightly garbage.
Walter also lived in the basement with Otis. He was a light skinned Black man and handsome chiseled to beat the band but crippled into a bonsai of his former self. He rarely smiled. His face reminded me of a scholar who had seen too much and understood how little he knew. On all the major holidays, he’d don his best suit and hat and, leaning on his cane, wait in the lobby for his daughter to pick him up. She rarely did.
One summer day the elevator broke after Schneller had taken her post outside. Everyone in building, coming from work going to dinner, had to make our way around Otis and Walter with his cane pushing Schneller up the stairs by her butt as she clung to the banister.
All day the Bathroom Attendant listened to other people go to the bathroom. I know because for a couple of months I hung out by the makeup mirrors in between therapy sessions and job interviews. She wore a quasi maid’s uniform, repeatedly offering paper towels in broken English that belied a sharpness and insight that only comes with starting life over at the age of 40 or 50 or 60.
Rather than deal with intelligence that could hear them in their most intimate moments, I watched her be summarily dismissed by the thousands of perkily dressed Mid-Western mid-management women snappily wearing their versions of the power suit with a Fortune 500 smugness at their New York conference before returning home to bland garden apartments or studios temporarily furnished for a pre-marital life.
One even demanded to know what that smell was and, at the risk of being complained about, the Bathroom Attendant shrugged a fuck-you-lady shrug and said “It’s a bathroom.”
And I begin: ”She is not being checked into the hospital I'm in charge of my mother's care we are going home so I'm not putting her in a gown she is not being checked into the hospital I'm in charge of my mother's care we are going home so I'm not putting her in a gown she is not being checked into the hospital I'm in charge of my mother's care we are going home so I'm not putting her in a gown…”
Even when the supervisor of Dr. Hottie R warns me that they can’t be responsible if I refuse to do what they say I should do which really means if something goes wrong with your mother we’re going to make sure you go to jail.
I’ve heard it before. I also know if she stays in the hospital, things will go more downhill than they already have and right now things are so downhill we’re digging a tunnel.
All the tests come back fine – her heart, her lungs, her pressure, her blood. I do not say “told you!” I just pretend to look relieved.
Dr. Hottie then wonders maybe she has a urinary tract infection. “Can you get her to pee? If not, we can easily catheterize her.” He seems very excited about that.
Questions that separates the men from the boys:
* How many times have you seen your mother’s vagina and urethra and asshole? * How intimate are you with the smells of those places you now wipe clean on a regular basis? * How often do you make decisions about those places?
“No catheters. It will be too upsetting. Let’s try the bedpan.”
For a frail old lady, Florence is dense heavy bones to move and it takes the new night nurse Ms. Nurse Dee and me to slip the metal bedpan under her. An hour later a hopeful check only finds the empty pan suctioned tight to Florence’s bottom. In between her shouting “Ow Ow that hurts,” Ms. Nurse Deeand I both pry the bedpan off her shrunken butt and a small plastic one is quickly slipped under her instead.
Then we shove as many little apple juice boxes as we can into her hands and she slurps away happily. Soon she is sleeping.
Dr. Hottie pops his head into the stall. “Anything?!” Man, this guy is so excited about the possibility of pee.
“Don’t worry! It will happen!” His shift ends in a few minutes and what he really wants is to find out if his hunch was right.
Suddenly things get quiet and empty. As if New York decided to take a break from car accidents and deranged homeless people and sidewalk falls and life-threatening illness.
And suddenly I am tired. About to hit 50, heartbroken, and exhausted from being Shirley Temple, always marching along with a chirpy little song and a happy little tap. Before I can stop myself I start crying silently
Out of nowhere, I hear Florence’s voice. “Laughing or crying?”
I look up. She is completely alert and sharp and curious.
“I want you to feel better,” she states. “I had to change in later years. Working.”
I sit up. “Working? Like teaching piano working?”
“No,” she says. “Working on myself. Becoming equal to what I had wanted to do.” And then she looks at me… she looks at me and…
A few hours ago she didn’t know my name or that I was her daughter. I was just the person she knew would always take care of her, rub her back, sing her songs, help her feel better - love her like a mommy loves her little girl.
But suddenly in this quiet and empty ER, after 50 years of knocking on closed doors, waiting patiently under the grand piano and walking silently next to her as she stomped through the city battling her demons, someone else is looking at me.
And although I only met her a couple of times in my life, I’d recognize her anywhere.
For, here, in a stall with shower curtains drawn around us like a shawl, from the midst of her disintegrating into wisps of childlike desperate need, I suddenly see my mother again.
“I’m going to give you a drink!” she declares.
“Of what? Scotch?” It was what we drank together at an old bar in the east village, never mind that I was still underage.
“No!” We are now both grinning at each other.
Out of nowhere a herd of doctors stomp into the next stall and wake up the addict there.
“We’re going to give you Narcon.” “No! No! I don’t want Narcon.” “Well did you take anything?” “NO! NO! I just fell asleep on the bench.” “Then why won’t you take Narcon?” “No! No!”
Florence and I look at each other like WOW. What was that?
We rest. I can’t take my eyes off of her and she keeps looking at me.
She finally says, “Is there anything I can give you?”
“You’re giving me something right now. You’re listening to me.”
“Well,” she says with strength from decades ago, “I’m listening!”
I say, “I think this was one of our best visits ever.”
But she dismisses me. “Oh, I like the other one where you put all the….
And I hear myself speak like the daughter I never got to be. “I’m just sad.”
“When you say the word SAD, I can feel it. You always say you’re O.K. Makes me think it’s….” Another word gone…
“I am OK. But I’m sad.”
“Why don’t you go to a shrink? Get a minor….”
“Start changing. Start changing the change of the different changes of the…”
I lean in, hoping my body acts like magnet for her words but she is fading…
“… and then start out with what you have with starting with a different…”
“What? Job? Attitude? Approach?”
“No. What I can think of it…that way is better…”
And then she starts to count.
“123. 456. 123. 456.”
We look at each other.
“A different time signature?” I ask.
My childhood as her pupil, spent learning notes and keys and rhythms.
And time signatures. The beats between two bars. The measure of each note. The pulse within the walls of a home.
My cousin once told me it was not the trumpets that brought down the walls of Jericho. It was the tears of the women.
And I weep. Out loud. And I weep out loud, not from a broken heart, but from a heart that has broken open.
“You look awful,” Florence says.
The addict, furious at the treatment he was offered but refused to take because it didn’t include the pain killers he wanted, screams at the doctor who has told him to leave the ER, “I HOPE YOUR CHILDREN ARE ALL FAGGOTS AND THEY DIE OF AIDS.”
It is now eleven hours since we’ve arrived at the ER. Ms. Nurse Dee comes in and we find that all the apple juice we plied on Florence was happily peed out - not into the little plastic tub, but all over the sheets, the pads the blanket, the bed. There is nothing left to do but catheterize her.
I hold Florence’s hand and sing her songs from musicals.
“Door Chimes! Phone Rings! In Comes Companeeee!”
And somehow there’s still some pee left inside her and the filled plastic bag is whisked away and we all find out she has a urinary tract infection which is one reason she couldn’t get out of bed for the last couple of months.
A prescription is called in to the 24-hour pharmacy, a private ambulance is summoned to take us home and two Amazons, with no effort whatsoever, move Florence from bed to stretcher and whoosh into the ambulance.
I quickly kill the roach running around the back but Florence somehow sees it. "Was that a roach?!"
At 10:50 pm we finally roll into her home lobby. Now all we have to do is get Florence from the stretcher to the wheelchair.
One of the Amazons scoops Florence into her arms. Florence, utterly befuddled, stares up at the Amazon in childlike wonder. Without thinking I blurt out, “Florence! It’s your dream come true! You're in the arms of a beautiful woman.”
And with that she is gently plopped into the wheelchair.
We can’t all fit in the tiny elevator. “They are going to take you up in the elevator and I'm going to take the stairs and meet you up on the 5th floor.”
Florence’s face crumbles. “But I want to go with you …”
Both Amazons go “AAAAWWWWWWW….”
I run up five flights of stairs and all four of us, the two Amazon, Penny who has waited up for us and me manage to get Florence out of sheets and wheelchair and confusion to face her bed.
When Florence sees it for the first time, her face lights up like a child opening a present. “OH!”
One of the Amazon scoops up Florence in her arms like a prince to his princess or a lover to her lover. Or a really strong woman to a frail old lady and she gently places Florence in bed. Penny and I cover her up.
The 12th street corner is now just one big nail salon filled with many women and a few men taking their manicures very seriously.
But once upon a time, a long long time ago, it was two stores. There was the laundry mat run by the Chinese family who had lived in the neighborhood since the 1840s. And next to that, in a sliver of a space, was the tiny, narrow, dusty, chaotic Second Avenue Shoe Repair shop.
The shoemaker was an old man in his 50s, originally from Turkey. He had a Russian refugee who worked as his assistant. Every Friday night the shoemaker would close up the shop at 5 p.m., send the assistant home early and put out a little feast for a couple of us tenants who lived upstairs.
There was the cat-like set designer who, the minute it turned 1980, moved to Hollywood. (Rumor had it she became famous).
There was the bigger-than-life 60 year-old booming voice character actor from the second floor who lived with his nephew (which made everyone laugh but I think that guy really was his nephew because I kept running into both of them with women who looked like they were being paid to be there).
And then there was me, recently kicked out into a new life and wearing heels for miles thinking it made me a woman.
We would crowd into the shop, pull the gates half-way down and drag out all the old chairs along the ancient wooden counter. The shoemaker would then pull out an old violin more beat-up than his counter and play the only thing he knew - The Beggar from Istanbul. Over and over and over again.
We would nod along, laugh, eat all the olives, nibble at the salami and cheese and finish off the bottle of red wine. The more he played the more we drank the better he sounded the more he played. And soon a second bottle would be dusted off and opened.
It was the perfect way to end the week of my first of many low-paying clerical jobs. I'd sit like a 1940's movie star in my high heels, smoking my Dunhill cigarettes, sipping wine and hoping no one noticed I was eating most of the free salami and cheese because it was a great meal I couldn’t afford.
The 1980's came. Schneller sold the laundry mat and the shoe repair spaces to a richer tenant. Like most young people, I didn't quite understand the profundity of end-over-dead-it’s-never-coming-back-again. I didn’t get the irreversibility of so-called progress. I still thought one day it would stay-the-same-not-erase-familiar-home. I thought there was still time left to reclaim things lost.
Me and the Russian refugee assistant both went down the street to the competition - Mr. Fontana's across the street from St. Marks Church.
With a shop much bigger than the Second Avenue Shoe Repair, but equally dusty and chaotic, Mr. Fontana was much more selective. The old Turkish shoemaker would fix anything for a couple of bucks, but Mr. Fontana didn't hesitate to fling the item back at you and say, "No. Too cheap. I don't do that." Or something like that because his accent was a mix of New Jersey, Queens and Italy and, with the machines running, all I could understand was if I wanted his repairs I'd need to upgrade the quality of my footwear.
If you didn't pick up your shoes in time Mr. Fontana would wait a while - like a year or a couple of months and then he'd sell them. I went in there regularly asking if anyone in my size had been negligent. I scored two pairs of ankle boots made of Italian leather, worth hundreds and sold to me for weekly grocery money. I also scored two Armani wing-tips for the man I loved for $50. (When he wore them he took my breath away and when he left me unexpectedly I was so angry and devastated I threw them away in a commercial mob-run garbage truck).
Then the 1990s and the naughts unfolded, and like a car crash in sudden slow-motion, the neighborhood became exclusive, filled with rich people dressing like how we dressed in the 1970's when we were broke, only their clothes were much better quality and cost much much more than the black wool overcoat I bought off of Henry in 1977 when his neighbor the old man died and they found 13 of those overcoats and Henry pulled them out of the trash and sold them to everyone at the bar for $5.
Watching versions of my old $5 coat being worn by young people who never seemed to have to go to work, I would step into Mr. Fontana's shop and feel for a brief moment stay-the-same-not-erase-familiar-home. I now understood the profundity of end-over-dead-it’s/he/she/they are-never-coming-back-again. Listening to the deafening noise of the machines, nodding to the Russian assistant, I’d pray the shop would last longer then I did so that I could grow old and face my own mortality in some familiar setting.
The one time I got up enough nerve and asked to take a picture of Mr. Fontana's shop, the batteries died after the second snap.
And shortly after that, Mr. Fontana got an eviction notice - 90 days to get out.
And shortly after that, a coffee shop moved in so that coffee aficionados wearing expensive black overcoats and black boots from the 1980s could enjoy their $5 cup of java.
I beat the ambulance to the ER. Because when the MTA is working, it works.
Penny, the home aide jumps out and shrugs, "She's fine. Cursed me all the way up." We both knew Florence was O.K. but good to do it by the book.
I do my "look in eyes, shake hands" with both ambulance drivers just in case we run into them again. They recount the various comments Florence made on the way up. Judging from their attempts at diplomacy, it is clear it’s not their usual "pick-up-sick-old-lady" run.
The ER is packed with a lot of old people ranging from normal old sick stuff to normal old dying stuff. We get parked in a corridor. Penny splits back to the apartment. Good time to catch up on the incontinence-laundry pile.
Hospital Rule Number One: with an old person who spent the last month in bed refusing to do anything except pretend to sleep while listening to the radio, do everything you can to keep their clothes on no matter what hospital personnel request. Because you know once they come off it will be impossible to get them back on.
So Just Say No.
Say "Pull up her shirt and hook her up to the EKG that way."
Say "You don't need her in a gown for the X-Ray because doesn't it just goes through the clothes?"
Say "She is not being checked into the hospital I'm in charge of my mother's care we are going home so I'm not putting her in a gown."
Don't say that last one out loud. Yet. But be prepared to say it a hundred times later.
The X-ray technician asks, "Are you related?"
Because I rarely call Florence "Mom" I'm often mistaken for the home aide.
A couple of hours later, we're moved to a better and much less drafty part of the corridor because the all stalls are still packed.
A whole bunch of cops and firefighters wheel in a crazy old man, a nostalgic reminder of the 1980s when Reagan cut funding and the mentally ill poured onto the streets the next day to become the new homeless. He is handcuffed to the wheelchair. As he passes us, it sounds like he is screaming "Stupid Spirit!" which I think is a pretty imaginative curse. One of the women cops corrects me. "Stupid fill in any ethnicity you want..." We listen to him scream for the next hour the following:
"You fucking Nazi."
"You fucking Spic."
"Why am I handcuffed?"
"Get these fucking handcuffs off me."
"Nazi, Nazi, Nazi, Nazi Hospital. I didn't want to come here."
In between the screaming, Mr. Nurse Cee tries to draw Florence's blood. But people keep going back and forth with stretchers. So he has to step out of the way a lot. He doesn't get much. I sing musical numbers to Florence as he takes another stab at it.
“Door Chimes! Phone Rings! In Comes Companeeee!”
The screaming old man quiets down - either he got moved or sedated. The firefighters and the cops head out. The really cute firefighter says to the other really cute firefighter, "What do I know? I'm just a stupid Spic." The woman cop complains to her partner, "I don't wanna leave my handcuffs here."
Dr. Hottie is young, cute and moves like a jockey - that small butch-in-command mojo swagger. You can tell he's going to be a great doctor. He asks Florence, "Are you home?" Florence says, "Well, I'll call it home..."
I have been holding her hand during everything. My nose itches. I scratch it and smell her urine. Find a hand-sanitizer dispenser and clean both of our hands.
"Have you ever taken care of anyone like this before?" Florence asks me.
He's short, noticeably short, almost like a jockey but with the girth and waggle of a pit bull. Dashing mustache - salt and pepper. He always seems to be wearing matching Bermuda shorts and guayabara and even when he isn't, he looks like he wants to. In colder weather a windbreaker and a cap. He carries either a shopping bag or, if it is a busy busy day, a big, black plastic garbage bag and he goes to all the drug treatment centers and methadone clinics, hidden away on third and fourth and seventh floors of garment district buildings that still haven't upgraded to a better clientele, and he collects all the urine samples and specimens needing to be tested for drugs and disease and occasional health.
So fast emptying locked fridges and tin medical boxes, never caught the act, always seen after the fact usually as he slips into the elevator his shopping bag fuller and fuller of little capped bottles of many people's pee.
It was much more proletarian. Whatever you needed - service or clothes - it was there and it was affordable. On the rare occasion something new was about to be purchased we would don our clean and neat apparel and take the IND to Herald Square.
Unlike the spectacle of today, the Macy's then was florescent lights and huge long floors filled with circular racks that spun around like those little pinwheels kids used to play with before video games came around.
Buying new was so significant an event my sister and I both remember the dresses one year we were allowed to choose. Mostly we were sent off to find the loose rubber bands that were discarded by the sales ladies. Florence always needed rubber bands and this was an efficient method of procuring them. Once found, we were then allowed to sit under the racks and in lieu of gum which was "bad for us", chew a couple of our newly found rubber bands while we waited for nothing new to be purchased.
The day was bright. There was something clean and crisp in the air. Not spring. February.
On any kind of day, it takes an army to get an old person who can’t walk or breathe normally to the corner of Broome and Columbia where the car service waits.
The dispatcher only gives you three minutes to get to the corner. And when you get there the driver insists you were told one minute. Still, on this day the driver waited; sunny, clear days that are not too cold are slow. All the old people who can walk without assistance take the Avenue A bus then.
I greeted this guy with the smile I greet everyone and anyone I have to enlist to help me take care of Florence. It says: isn't she cute this little old lady practically toppling over and dying in my arms and I'm only 3 inches taller than her but clearly I'm her daughter just look at the cheekbones and we even still dress alike parka, beret, sneakers look how much I'm caring for my old mother aren't we a sympathetic sight?
And like the car service guys before him, this one smiled back and lightened up about it taking us more than three minutes to get to the corner. That gave me hope he would be good natured about waiting at the Curb of Insanity at Beth Israel's outpatient facility while I dodged a billion other car services and Access-A-Ride vans to run in and find a wheelchair to bring out to the car.
The car zipped onto Delancey. I had about fifteen minutes of not-panicking before we got to the Curb of Insanity. At the red light, Florence read aloud all the signs in the window of the last remaining Spanish-Chinese restaurant in the city. "Apolo. Restaurant. Lunch Specials. $8.95. That's expensive."
We watched the stores fly by. Turning up First Avenue, the street looked like an empty Sunday, a wide boulevard of another city maybe in Europe - stately and gracious, the buildings suddenly with character, not tarted-up tenements with $2000 a month rent for a studio.
Packed weekend sidewalk filled with thin beautiful young people with Ph.Ds in looking too cool for fuck. The 20-something kid in a pork pie hat walking and talking like an expert, points back to the little candy shop and speaks smugly into his friend's very expensive video camera. "What's an egg cream? Where's the egg? How come they call it an egg cream if there's no egg? I don't know." He acts like his not knowing is the candy store's problem. Not his.
That candy shop on Avenue A was the only thing open at night for twenty, thirty years when A was the dividing line between walking home to Grand Street or being a junkie and/or too poor to move away. Those egg creams were sometimes better than love. Sometimes, they still are.
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.