Sometimes he gets up on the desk by the fax machine, leans over the cubicle wall and checks to see if I'm OK, and if I am OK, willing to say hello without being sarcastic.
That day she wanted to know what he was doing, who he was talking to, what he was looking at.
So during a busy afternoon of many clients attempting clean and sober, and full urine cups checking to see if they did, Constance climbed up onto the desk too, and she and YaYa, old friends and long-time colleagues, got a little visit in. I just took pictures.
There are people in that neon ball of lights and metal being bounced with atomic force into the stratosphere. The screams ricochet AAAARRR as it CRASHES almost to the ground and then aaaaaaarrrr as it is FLUNG into the sky again.
We stand there wondering if we should risk our $150 dinner on complete surrender to a force greater than ourselves. Instead we choose the slot machine where we get to keep our dinner but not our pennies.
B. told us. Of course none of us believed her. But she insisted. She had it on good authority and could even prove it to us.
So we all trooped off to the Children's Section of the Seward Park Library on East Broadway where the librarian nodded gravely at B.'s request and then guided us to a little bookcase we had never really paid attention to before. And there she pulled out a big enough picture book with big enough pictures called How Babies Are Made.
The sudden information that not only did our fathers have one of those but that they did that with our mothers was numbingly shocking.
I needed a break from worrying and calling and emailing and strategizing (is the eye infected can we get her out of bed what about the air conditioner where can we let her still make decisions so she feels she is not meaningless does anything we do even matter).
Headed over to a friend. Another old building, those elevators took forever to show up. After a long wait, I caught an empty one and just as I was about to ride to the 9th floor, a young hand shot out and stopped the door from closing.
Two women entered - a young home attendant puzzled by a voice mail on her cellphone and the other a tiny little old lady as fragile as a dandelion and obviously loved enough to be dressed well and smell clean.
The little dandelion leaned on her walker and looked at me - that sweet little girl look that often come back with dementia. I smiled at her. I smiled because I knew how few people did. Old age is what cancer used to be - if you don't look it in the eye it will never happen to you.
Such loneliness, such loneliness. To be visible and not be seen.
The two women got off on the 6th floor, the home attendant gently guiding the little dandelion out. But once in the hallway, the dandelion stopped and, befuddled, pushed her walker back towards the elevator.
As the door closed, I heard the young home attendant gently coaxing her back: “Florence. Florence. This way. It's this way home."
Now, Today, These Days: The hallway leading to the roach apartment where Sophie kept her last years has been repainted.
Then, Before, In Those Days: We visited once a week. Friday nights. Take the Madison Street bus to Market Street. Or walk down East Broadway. And when I got older, ride the old Raleigh 3 speed.
Then, Before, In Those Days: Press 9 and the elevator would take me and my sister up to the only time of the week we got to drink a C&C coke, eat a hostess cupcake and watch the TV. Slam the elevator door open, run as fast as we could to the next to the last door, the next to the last door down the really long hallway banging the old knocker bang bang bang GRAMMMA!!!!
And at the end of the night sometimes being picked up by Florence and our father, a meandering walk home where we tortured Florence with questions about why she couldn't walk in a straight line, or what happened to her eye, or how come she had no hair on her legs. Or I would hold my father's hand and ask why do we die and do I have to marry a Jewish man.
Then, Before, In Those Days: But other nights just me and my sister maybe I'm 8 maybe she's 12, walking home at 10pm along East Broadway
me asking and asking and asking every questions I had about Star Trek and Captain Kirk asking because I knew she was the smartest person in the world and would know the answer to what I didn't understand about that episode that week.
They shut down 8th Avenue because a second guy climbed the Times Building. Just like when we were kids, watching an accident or a fire, we all hung out smack in the middle of the street watching the flashing lights, playing with one another and reenacting the news we were going to watch later.
The corner between our buildings and the barrel park had a special secret passage way wide enough for all of us to slip under until one day we were suddenly almost too big. And then shortly after that it was cemented up and we had to walk around to the gate like all the adults.
Before lobby doors were locked and kids were imprisoned inside their apartments for all their play dates, we ran wild from building to building a hide-n-seek game that spanned the entire housing project, almost peed on ourselves giggling as we hid under all the stairs.
And then one day this corner stopped us all when jumping rope B. called "leaders allowed!" and jumped in backwards on a Spay and I followed, not going to let her get the best of me I catapulted myself through the air to jump in on the "J" and when I hit the bricks they all thought I was laughing but the sound didn't stop and people came running from the other end of the courtyard and someone ran up to tell my parents who never ever got interrupted ever about our playing outside unless of course we did something really really wrong like go on the roof or make fun of A. until she cried. Even though Florence thought an ice pack would make my left arm better, finally my father realized it was serious enough not to take the bus but actually take a rare taxi ride to Beth Israel where they put my arm in a sling, and which I quickly slipped out of because I didn't want to ask anyone else to tie my shoes. So the following week they put me in a sling wrapped to my body and I spent the next two months looking like a one-armed lady with a big lopsided tit, being forced by Florence to practice all the right hand parts of my piano lessons, and made to learn cymbals for the stupid student orchestra performance of "Love of Three Oranges" which of course at the big concert I screwed up and just slammed the right cymbal into the left crash crash crash because I didn't know where we were but I knew it was the end and there were many cymbal crashes at the end and Mrs. K the conductor couldn't stop me for all the glaring she did.
I pull out the new walker Medicaid has gotten us. None of us are strong enough to hold her up anymore. Especially when she does that I-gotta-sit-down-on-the-floor/sidewalk/doctor’s office/stairwell/lobby thing.
That walker is our safety net. It has a chair and it can hold her weight on its arms better than me or Penny or Gabriella. Beats calling 911 or the Maintenance Guys to pick her up.
Florence does not see it that way. She hates that walker like I hated the violin. And she is seriously pissed off about having to use it. So I sell it like the masterful liar I’ve become. If she uses the walker, she’ll get strong again and can then tell me, Penny and Gabriella to go to hell and live by herself again and go to dances with lots of girls ready to foxtrot with her and run up and down Sixth Avenue eating whatever fast food she wants.
With that in mind she grabs the handles and starts shoving herself through space. I shout things at her like You're Doing Great and Let's Go You're Strong Go Florence.
She's as bad a driver as me and neither of us can get the walker through one doorway and into another without banging into walls, the desk, bookcases and every chair in the apartment.
At some point we all give up. Florences settles into the big chair in front of the TV. I put on THE PARENT TRAP with Lindsey Lohan because I don't have anything left inside to watch SINGING IN THE RAIN for the thirtieth time I just don't. There's nothing left inside.
THE PARENT TRAP is a miserable movie for both of us. She can't follow it because there is no music to take her through a familiar story. I wince at the bad writing and crude acting, but marvel at the young Lohan and answer Florence's repeated questions about the title the plot the actors the title the plot the actors the title the plot and soon it's over ...
...and I surrender and put on SINGING IN THE RAIN and Florence sings furiously along, each and every note and soon to hell with Gene Kelly wherever he is in the song. She motions me to join in and I sing along with her "... in the rain, what a glorious feeling..."
It’s Sunday and I’ve arrived with my usual bags of food from various eating joints. Penny has successfully cleaned Florence up and gotten her to the kitchen table.
The Jonathan Schwartz show is on and Sinatra pours out of the old kitchen table radio. Florence sings along furiously along and at some point, to hell with Sinatra wherever he is at in the song, she is in the middle of her own rendition. She motions me to join in and I sing along with her as I dish food onto her plate.
"I am singing every note in tune! You don't sing in tune!" Florence yells at me.
I don't bother to argue with her that she is in a different key than the radio. Like most recent experiences it doesn't matter what I do. Today all that matters is that Florence needs me to be someone incapable of singing as well as she does, keys be damned. It's the highlight of her week.
Coleslaw shakes precariously on her fork. I hover with a napkin. Florence hates everything she eats, save the coleslaw. That she'll eat without telling me how awful it tastes.
I cut another piece of meatloaf. Hand it to her. Do the mommy thing of "Just one bite come on you need to eat some more..."
She bites. "This is terrible."
It's the third sandwich I've tried on her this week. Nothing works. “How can I make it better?"
"Make the food taste good again."
I stare at all the pills I've poured into little neat daily piles. The drugs keeping her alive are killing her life.
The internet hadn’t been invented yet. So, at 3am when I couldn't sleep or after a night of futile socializing and too depressed to go back to an empty apartment, I came here: an all-night diner with a counter that swirled like a river you see in pictures taken from far, far away ... like the moon.
My favorite spot at that beat-up counter faced Second Avenue. Sat there for years - staring out the window hoping "he'd" see me and come in to renew love (“he” did several times) or writing all the stories I knew could change the world if only someone would read them.
The two old counter ladies - called Jurassic Park behind their back by all the dishwashers - fed me coffee, which was all I could afford in those days (except for an occasional splurge on borscht). And once, when I started to cry at a finished love poem that didn’t have a happy ending, the red-head one even patted my hand and got me a free refill.
Besides the Jurassic Park ladies, I was almost always the rare female there, surrounded by men also sitting in their favorite spots and talking themselves non-stop out of their own darkness.
*** the 4 foot 9 inches cop who insisted the Thompkin Square Park Riots was the fault of only one or two corrupt cops because he knew all the guys at the precinct and they were straight up and honest.
*** the Robert Redford look-alike who loved astrology and whose daughter didn't talk to him and in five minutes you understood why.
*** the unshaven, slightly slovenly, plump "theater-something-or-other" with papers sticking out of his beat-up portfolio who talked in ferocious whispers to the Robert Redford look-alike.
*** the short-order cook who broadcasted his marital problems while flipping late night food on the grill and demanding explanation from the cashier about why his new bride should get so upset after he locked her out by accident. Again. For the third time. And did any of us think he was trying to tell her something because he didn't think he was HE JUST FORGOT!?
*** the famous artist who sat and looked for who would be his next subject(s) in his next famous murals (never me even after 17 years of us facing each other)
Night after night all of us floating on this old counter…and when the streets took a breather from muggings and other assorted crap, we all (quickly) wandered home.
Then the owner's grandson went to restaurant college.
And shortly after, light fixtures got changed, new murals went up, walls came down and the counter was amputated into a brief moment of no-view-not-worth-sitting-down. All the regulars regularly peeked into the new place as it slowly filled up with folk we didn’t recognize.
One day I ran into the Jurassic Park ladies by the Polish Meat Market. Hugging me, they kept insisting it was the same and urged me to come back. So I did.
But it wasn't the same.
The borscht came in small expensive bowls, the pierogis changed into Northern California inventions filled with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes and soon the Jurassic Park ladies were gone and in their stead were new waitresses who were young and tight and pretty and impatient to the many new diners who thought they had found an authentic East Village eatery because they were being treated so rudely.
And soon after that, splurging on a more-expensive bowl of borscht, I recognized only one face in the new mural the famous artists did for the reopening - a tiny memorial to an old drinking buddy who died of a heart attack on the corner of 7th Street and Avenue B in 1979.
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.