Thursday, July 31, 2008

When Does A House Becomes a Home?*

From my bubby's home, via my childhood's home.

From a friend's house no longer wanted.

From the street - placed carefully so that everyone passing would know it was up for grabs.

From an abandoned yeshiva summer camp.

From a long-lost cousin and painter in Moscow, smuggled to me in the late 1970s before Gorbachev and glasnost.

From a roommate who moved west in 1979.

From a neighbor. (The pillows were $2.50 each at a Church basement sale on 37th Street.)

From Florence's ex-girlfriend.

1. From Florence's other ex-girlfriend - a recipe from Florence's mother-in-law given to said ex-girlfriend one evening in 1947 at my parents' apartment in Knickerbocker Village. 2. From a temp job in 1978 - Mapplethorpe portraits of Lisa Lyon's biceps. 3. From a former boss in 1997, an internet joke of a meditation on killing someone to reduce stress. 4. Magnets from my roommate who lived here at 17 and has, in her forties, since returned.

*inspired by someone's Crate & Barrel's purchases as he re-emerges his home.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Merrily Merrily Merrily Merrily Life Is But A Dream - Snapshots of Deep Waters Continue

There were only two boats in my lower east side life - The Staten Island Ferry and a Central Park rowboat. And the most time I spent out on Fire Island or the Hamptons I was of the domestic milieu - depending on the family: the teenage nanny, the teenage housekeeper, the young adult nanny, the young adult house helper. It's how I got my summer vacations. (Because there was no way we could afford for me to go out there otherwise, which is probably why in a recent drive to East Hampton for a weekend getaway my whole body cringed when we passed the South Fork Realty Sign.)

Three-plus decades later, this visit had no domestic demands other than join in on delicious cooking and high speed clean up so we could get back to Fun, another new possibility I had to figure out. And on the lone sunny day that included a boat.

Doc owned it. She owned like I own my thrift-store Prada kitten heels. Normal possession. And it was sleek and it went fast. (I always felt The Universe kept me too poor to own a motorcycle so that I wouldn't kill myself from sleek and fast.)

Scrambling on, I wondered if in fact reincarnation did exist. I had been here before. The water no longer looked like one of those nightmares where you find yourself naked in a social situation and they were about to give the mid-term you didn't study for.

No. The boat felt like a family reunion with people I was happy to see. A feeling that definitely did not come from anything in my life filled me like it had always been there. And the faster Doc went the happier I felt.

When we go to the part of the Fun that included crawling into a tiny air raft and being dragged around an inlet really fast, I thought nah, looks dumb and boring. But everyone else, including the non-swimmer, had gone and I wasn't good at turning down new experiences.

I crawled in, Doc revved up and when she hit 25 miles per hour, I didn't recognize the laughter roaring out of my body or these biceps easily holding on as I bounced up into the air and then surfed the raft into even more treacherous wake.

Then something odd happened. Looking down at my sturdy legs bracing against 4 feet of flying up and slamming down, and my arms grasping the handles, I looked like, just for a second, my grandfather the Ox.

A thug from Russia, he never lost a fistfight because the one punch was always his. And he punched anyone he deemed wrong - including all his family, the foreman of the rare Depression-era job, and the cop on the corner of Columbia and Grand. He taught himself to read and write English. He picked up whole pieces of big furniture without breaking a sweat and he worked, well, like an Ox. A short squat all muscled immigrant. Fearless.

As I bounced bigger and higher and roared louder and longer, I wondered how our family's heart and soul would have been if only the Ox had had my life and this moment.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sunday Memories - Baby Boy Tadpole and Other Snapshots from Deep Waters

The emotional amnesia of entering a pool doesn't mean I don't remember. It just means I don't know what it is I am remembering. Sort of like Nixon's famous 18 minutes or Florence knowing who I am but not knowing she's my mother, something essential disappeared from reality.

So it is still a mystery as to what possessed me to take my then less than two but not much more than one year old nephew, Baby Boy and dunk him into a swim class called Tadpoles for Tots (or some other God awful moniker to frilly up the fact a bunch of adults were going to forcibly plunge small barely verbal little itty-bitties into cold water and then coo at them as the kids went psychotic.)

Perhaps I was attempting to recover my lost youth through this non-Christian baptism or perhaps I was just trying to recover. Whatever it was this missing, a vacuum a dead spot in my internal universe, regardless every Saturday I traveled the errant 1, 2, or 3 to the Upper West Side to collect the unsuspecting trusting adoring nephew and then bring him down to baby hell at the 68th street Y.

Old wooden benches banged up rusted lockers and trying to figure out where to put down a fat baby without stepping on him, dragging up against unwilling flesh my swimsuit then his over a diaper that would weigh as much as him once it got saturated and finally stepping into that ancient box of clanging tiles, echoes and an old pool filled mostly with kiddie pee.

I cooed and cooed and cooed "oh here we are in the nice water..." and he screamed and screamed and screamed in baby language "GET ME OUT OF HERE YOU FUCKING WITCH YOU BETRAYER OF ALL GOOD YOU DECEITFUL HORROR SHOW I THOUGHT WE WERE RELATED."

Truly the scarring moment that 18 years later still crumbles my heart is when his mother stopped by to see the class and said toddler, making Christ look like a geriatric sloth, propelled himself screaming sobbing in a bee-line across the pool to her, begging her in every wail he could to "please Mommy please" care for him enough as her son and rescue him away from all this.

What was it that suddenly became different .... another freezing wet miserable moment and we gave him a play phone (he skipped the cars and trucks and went straight to the office equipment) I started cooing "scoop scoop scoop" cupping his hands with the phone and moving them through the water... "scoop scoop scoop" and Baby Boy oh like a delicious cake bloomed a delicious sweet smile and without any of us expecting a miracle cooed back to us "scoop scoop scoop" and even thought I still couldn't remember my own lost world Baby Boy began to swim.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Just a Song and a Prayer

My dream of a city where I have no memories yet still feels like home recently slipped through my heart's fingers and I have found myself once again back in New York treading through THEN as I go through NOW.

We never really went west of Macy's. Herald Square was 34th Street as much as the world was flat prior to Columbus's birth. But with a sudden need for a job to pay a sudden rent I incurred after a sudden invitation to leave my parents' home, I found myself at the age of 17 walking into the many 34th Street dusty offices of the many cheap clothes buyers, bulky men with pompoudors, tints of gray on the side, pinky rings who spoke more with their hands and the shrug of a shoulder than with words.

I, practically in bad drag with a cheap skirt, cheaper heels, and a too-bright smile would wait patiently on old aluminum chairs practicing enthusiasm for the Receptionist Position while fantasizing a future of being "the Girl" to all these men. Down on the street, windows poured out the very things these men sold and as I looked for work I felt at home. It was just like Delancey Street only a bit more expensive.

My dream of being "the Girl" never happened. I became other things in other offices. I went to school. I still paid my rent. I grew old and as I did, my city became some place I didn't grow up in.

Except for some small patches. Three decades later I now work west of Macy's. When saturated with cubicle walls I stroll down the street I recognize intimately. No longer on a now renovated Delancey, these 34th Street windows sing to me memories that don't make me wince or even cry. And as I walk by I say private prayers of gratitude to the place I still belong. Sometimes it looks like I'm talking to myself but nothing stops me from wishing all the store keepers well and praying they hold their leases until something happens and New York become a place to live and work again. It may be futile and perhaps I need to accept change but these small corners hold me as I heal.

Today's walk was no different. There was the window just like the one I had drooled in front of when there was no extra money for unnecessary toys.

I swear these are the same serious shoes my father looked at with great thought.

And these immortal pretty ladies still look like we never could.

I was offering up my prayer of gratitude "oh thank you for being here please stay and earn money enough to pay your rent..."

...when I saw this.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Sweet Spot: More Snapshots from Deep Waters

Curve yourself onto that soft edge between your back and your belly.

Like Matisse’s paint brush pouring into a reclining woman, glide on that sweet spot toward home, home being the other side of the pool.

Or a home that only looks like the middle of the bed but is the beginning swim to some place buried in her heart where love buoys her to the other side of deep waters.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sunday Memories: "Not Coney. Coney Island."

[Florence, 62, at her favorite Coney spot in the 1980’s]

Florence is not only refusing to get out of bed, she is refusing visitors everything but her back.

Kay, the recreational therapist managed to get Florence to turn to her by playing a sonatina really badly on her portable electric keyboard. Annoyed by sloppy playing, Florence rolled over, corrected Kay’s mistakes and then rolled back into her little corner. 

Kay didn't give up. She began mispronouncing composers' names, badly. Florence rolled back over and began a lesson in how one is required to speak and how De BUUUUSEEE is supposed to be pronounced.

A couple of days later, finished with my swimming lesson which actually went... swimmingly (in other words, I did not drown), I looked down from the glass balcony at the gym's pool filled with bodies going back and forth, and recalled a recent conversation with her former girlfriend who had loved her since they were teenagers.

“Your mother was a great swimmer, your mother could swim anywhere, your mother....".

Years ago before we knew her memory had begun step behind closed doors to hide her accidents and mistakes, I got her to talk into a microphone about the place she loved more than her piano.  Wondering if I too could coax Florence to roll back into life, I called.

"Hello Florence, I just finished another swimming lesson!"

"I used to go swimming. I swim," Florence said.

"I KNOW.  IN THE OCEAN.” (I had to shout this because she had forgotten how to hold the phone up to her ear and my cell phone in a cavernous gym wasn't helping.)

"Right. And then you sit on the boardwalk, watch the people and they see you alone and they try to strike up a conversation."

"Get out of bed and I'll take you to Coney."

"NOT Coney. It's Coney Island. Coney ISLAND."

"Get out of bed and I'll take you to Coney ISLAND."

"OK. Maybe tomorrow. Don't eat too much. And lie down."

And with that she clicked off to roll back into her sweet spot.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ben's Birthday

I've carried his picture in every calendar book I've ever owned. It's a reminder to stand up straight and keep my nose clean.

In this picture he is the young prosecutor of evil politicians in Washington or Samoa or someplace like that. In this picture he is younger by almost several decades than I am now. Yet in this picture he is already a father to two kids and he has agreed to take in one more - his wife's teenage cousin (me). A thirty-something battling injustice with two small kids takes in a teenager? Man, crazy don't even cut it, but he and my cousin did just that.

And once there, he let me punch him as hard as I could, put make-up on him, come home late and, ok occasionally stoned (but only twice with the stone part - well, at least that I can remember), pour new friends into an already kid-filled house, and each time the phone rang, get out of my way as I ran down stairs and through rooms, screaming "IT'S FOR ME!" (It rarely was).

He's now a judge, black robe and everything. And he fights for the American Way - you know, the one we used to have. He's fair and he's smart and that's rare, so bad guys hate him and the rest of us get to breathe easier.

Years ago at another milestone birthday of his (and the one I now face), I thanked him for teaching me who Highly Salassie was, how to play cards without the threat of violence, and that I always had a home and a family. Such small unimportant things. Maybe for others as normal as dinner on the table or milk in the fridge. But they were enough to keep me off the streets and out of bad, bad things. I told him then and today I tell him again:

Because you were a stupid thirty-something taking in an insane teenager I am not dead.

So, Happy Birthday, Ben. Happy, Happy Birthday. Put on that black dress and go kick some bad booty. Me? I'm going to take a deep breathe and give gratitude I'm still around to watch.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Swimming Swimming In A Swimming Pool* - Snapshots From Deep Water

Florence said that after Gramma died, she started going to Coney “to make things right” and swim in honor of her mother.

Water was not a foreign entity on the Lower East Side. Not everybody swam but everybody got wet -  Coney or Pitt Street Pool or, in my aunts' and uncles' days, the East River.

I thought I had Pitt Street Pool conquered until one day the four feet of water wasn't four feet anymore and I found myself flailing.  Either one of the bigger kids or my big sister or a life guard pulled me out. The Educational Alliance day camp pool lessons taught me to float in case that happened again.

The 14th Street Y had a pool and a teen program. At the age of 13, in a rare fit of acting my age, I badgered Florence for a bikini.  It wasn’t just the money which was always tight; it was also her slow fade into private desires and secret regrets that made it risky to interrupt her.

But there was this boy and I was this girl and somehow I understood a bikini was part of the deal I wanted to happen.

She caved and with $20, I headed off to A&S in Brooklyn. I don't remember the color, the style, the stripes, the dots.  All I remember is rushing to the pool, seeing the boy I liked and jumping into the pool to say hello.

No one told me that, as I stood in freezing water trying to impress the object of my affection, the top of my bikini had slipped off my adolescent breasts.

Florence sewed the straps tighter but I never wore it again.  I also refused to return to the Y for years and years.  And when I did, this time as an over-sized overall-wearing tax-paying adult, even then, I shook with humiliation.

Then one day Gramma died and Florence got on the F train to Coney and dove into the ocean.  I continued to stay dry with only a couple of interruptions here and there, like at the 100 year old City College pool or the elite NYU pool or some tiny hotel pool or a rare ocean vacation (but only up to my knees for fear of sharks).

Not sure why, but as Florence began to swim in a haze of NPR and sheets of pee liner pads - occasionally coming up for air to say she hurt and was unhappy - I enrolled for maybe the fifth time in 25 years for beginner swimming lessons after work in a big indoor pool.  There was even a sauna waiting for me at the end of an hour of breathing water up my nose.

When I told her I was learning to swim, rare delight, passion and determination flooded her face. "Oh. You must."
*a little song we used to sing on the Lower East Side with accompanied hand dancing:

Swimming swimming
In a swimming pool
When it's hot and when it's cold
In a swimming pool
Right stroke
Breast stroke
Fancy diving too
Wouldn't you like to be in a swimming pool?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sunday Memories - Jutta's Kitchen - Part Three

There are stories of Jutta's not mine to tell.

And in surviving there are things put aside, as one does after plane crashes and other sundry disasters.

But then one day she picked up her brushes again.

Early early days she relearned each stroke.

And then one day I began to sit for her.

Early early days she relearned to look and then to see.

Restart, relearn, rebirth, repeat. Again, again, again, repeat.

There in Jutta's Kitchen, sitting quietly for hours, often hung-over, anticipating my next cigarette and daydreaming of a life eventually never lived, I learned how "in action there is release from anguish of mind."*

*Frank Lloyd Wright

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jutta's Kitchen - Part Two

Even after Jutta's 16 year old son Marc and 14 year old me stopped dating (if you call listening to Sibelius's violin concerto while holding hands "dating") I still found my way to her kitchen several times a week for years after. Lots of times there was a gaggle around the small wooden table - me, Marc, the two Haitian brothers from down the street, the Korean prodigy alone in NY since he was like 12 and Chops the dog who had a blue eye and a brown eye. Whatever Jutta put on the table was a feast and the words and the laughter and the languages poured over meals and cigarettes and coffee and sometimes dessert.

I didn't know I was destined to live a life where nothing else matter except the attempt to tell a story with all my heart and soul. I didn't know until 35 years later that because her kitchen was a home for a bunch of motley baby artists, my surrender to my life was fueled by her example.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Jutta's Kitchen - Part One

She is now 82. I have been visiting her since I was 13. Now at almost 50 I realized I had the rare thing for a girl of my time. A role model who was a woman AND an artist.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


Vacations were for other people.  For us, summer was a stand-off between our need to have something to do during the day and our parents’ need to not have to think about it. Everything really worked much better when we were at school.  He was at work and she was at the piano.

Time stops for no man or pianist for that matter and neither do the seasons. Summer came. Repeatedly.

I am not sure when it started and when it ended - it didn’t last long - but for a couple of years, Atlantic City became our Riviera. And with the recent purchase of a car needed to get my father to his job out on Long Island, it was suddenly accessible.

The exotic motel we stayed at had an ice machine - the push of a lever and a cascade of perfectly formed ice cubes tumbled down - not the bitterly small, thin ones we made in aluminum trays.  And right below our small balcony was a real swimming pool -  not the huge ocean of Pitt Street Pool, but small and shallow enough to paddle across and splash about.  It even had a fancy swirling shape.   It was DESIGNED like from out of a Jacque Tati movie.

Those few days in such a luxurious setting - whatever was or wasn’t happening in this family didn’t matter -  there were things to delight in - the beautifulness of the old boarding houses and cheap motels pushing the battered boardwalk into the sea, all the salt-water taffy stands in every flavor in the world, all the magic peelers transforming radishes into flowers. 

The beaches were  clean like the Beatle’s movie HELP, not a cigarette or empty beer bottle in sight.  And the wonderful waves didn’t smell bad.  And the big seafood restaurant had fancy chowder crackers in beautiful little seashell shapes.  Beat the penny pretzel we got on Delancey Street any day, hands down.

The four of us in one room, two beds, no memory of how my sister and I negotiated sudden close space but we slept not missing the familiar rumble of the Williamsburg Bridge.

Time stops for no man and no family either.  We all moved out to other worlds, leaving Florence behind in the former home of the family.  Not sure what my sister or my father did for their summer vacation, but Florence’s became day trips to Coney and, in between shit jobs, I worked for room and board in a fancy commune upstate. 

And soon after, Atlantic City got torn down and shiny casino hotels we could have never afforded took the place of those old motels and boarding houses.

Still, there was an unexpected silver lining.  Searching for eager gamblers who didn’t drive, the casinos sent buses to the Lower East Side with an offer hard to refuse - take our free bus to our fancy shiny casino hotel and we’ll give you $10 to gamble.

Surrounded by shabby men of all sizes, religions, races and cigarette brands, Florence, bathing suit under her jeans, beach towel in hand, grabbed that free trip to Atlantic City  - $10 to splurge on a cold beer and a sandwich she didn’t have to cook?  Now that was a vacation.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Home Is Where The Heart Is

He lives above me. Has ever since he was born. He is a smart junior high schooler. Has always made music on my ceiling - running jumping rattling my dishes to his beat and one night, when he was tiny tiny tiny, with his wail of indignation because he was being sent to bed before something really really good was going to happen he didn't know what but he knew it was good. Now he plays bass. And I just laugh with delight when that familiar Led Zeppelin bass walks across my head during evening bill paying or writing this blog.

I, who grew up under a grand piano pounding Liszt and Chopin, live between them.

He lives below me. Has ever since I was younger younger younger 32 years ago. He is an important music critic. And unless they're on vacation, I listen to whatever he listens to through my floor. A recognizable beat during the 1980s when he was writing the history of rock and roll ("He's up to Motown now," said Joni, who lived with me in 1987). Or recently a night silence I really could have done without suddenly I put my ear to the crack on the living room floor, heard something completely new and felt my heart lift.

*thanks to Mukul for his suggestion about this post.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Old Gardening Bears

They've been across the street for as long as I remembered to look out the window.

A balcony above the Japanese restaurant, filled with plants and two chairs and sometimes a few pieces of laundry.

Her blonde Sir Lancelot haircut, a bear comfort to her body. Him, dark maybe South East Asian, salt and pepper through his short afro and, like her, also a bear in his body.

On summer days I watched her putter around the plants and in winter I watched the two of them on Second Avenue with their sturdy knapsacks out of place in the crowd of young sex-in-the-city-wannabees and very rich kids pretending to have not enough money to buy un-beat-up clothes. As they wove in and out of cell-phone conversations and sauntering Ugg boots there was a shared a graceful lumber that spoke of many years walking side by side in comfort and companionship.

And then I stopped seeing her. Only him, knapsack firmly in place. For a long, long time. The balcony stayed empty. The plants still there but not the laundry. Years.

A couple of days ago, there she was.

On an early weekend morning of quiet before the young neighborhood woke up. What I had wondered or feared or suspected may have been true. Her hair now gray-white and her face gaunt, she stood still on the balcony in an old cotton sleeveless house dress. And he gently cut her hair. I watched this haircut become as intimate as the dance they walked together.