Standing there, dripping wet from freezing rain, O'Keefe pointed out that with such lousy weather and cold subway platforms and packed subway cars and overheated apartments (but never when you wanted heat), it was hard to know what to keep on and what to take off at any given moment.
Was there ever room in rush hour to hold one's coat on one's lap? Did coats get fatter since we were kids sitting in our polite wool coats on the IND line? The puffed coats we now all seem to wear make us look like packing peanuts in a box.
What about taking shoes off at friend's doorways? I remember taking off boots if the weather was awful, but not other times. Now custom seems to dictate all kinds of footwear taken off in all kinds of weather which also seems to dictate wearing socks or feet not horrendously shabby.
There seemed to be no answer except to overheat or strip.
It's a vague memory from another time and place. But I dimly recall our odd little family - a mother father older sister and me - striking out into the empty city on Christmas Day.
It wasn't our holiday and for weeks we had relinquished the streets to activity only done for our birthdays. Now with everyone tucked into family traditions never done in our home on any day of the year, we walked the streets and traveled the subways relishing a city solely ours until New Years.
It was so cold and so late and so far uptown, too far uptown when it was that cold and that late.
Everyone did the precarious tipping over like a little teapot and stared down the dark tunnel hoping the IRT would zoom into sight because all our eyeballs were magnets and it couldn't resist the pull.
That's when I saw the MTA guy walking the tracks, swinging his lantern and flashing his flashlight.
He moved slow, scrutinizing every inch of all the metal and concrete and third rail and pools of floating garbage. Nothing broke his slow, steady stride, not even the rat running across his path in an attempt to avoid him. Behind him were three other men, also swinging lanterns and flashing flashlights and walking slow.
I got that sinking feeling of oh shit the way they're walking no train will be coming like forever.
Then in slow motion the first guy turned and waved his lantern.
Out of nowhere, a train had appeared.
All the guys strolled toward the pillars. The train tooted its horn.
"Hey, what are you looking for?" I asked.
He wasn't even near his pillar. Just stopped and gave me a long look. Then said, "Everything."
At his feet was the body of a dead rat lying in a pool of blood.
"Like that?" I asked
Another long look. The train was practically in the station. "Yeah. A lot of those."
And with that he disappeared into pillars and the blur of a train headed downtown.
Florence's apartment has one just like this in her kitchen.
You stick your finger in one of those holes and then rotate the dial for each number of the number you are calling.
You can walk and talk on this phone as far as the cord goes.
A long time ago, like in the 1970's, when the phone company owned everything, this was the official phone of the apartment. Any extra phone, you had to pay extra. Nobody paid extra. We all had illegal phones. All wired up to this main phone with splices and electrical tape. If the phone company suddenly appeared at your door you had to quickly dismantle all the jerry-rigged illegal phones and hide them.
One time the guy showed up unexpected and I got my hair wet so he'd think I had been in the shower and that's why I kept him waiting outside the door, but really I was dismantling our extensions. And another time the phone guy grilled me for 5 minutes insisting there must be other phones in the house because he couldn't believe three girls could share one phone that resided in a then bedroom. I insisted we were all very close and could. He knew I was hiding ill-gotten equipment.
Then everything changed and the phone company owned nothing. The height of modern technology was pushing buttons instead of sticking fingers in holes. That and longer cords. Then things got crazy and you didn't need cords or wires at all.
Now, you don't even need a home to have a phone.
What I love most about this phone: during the blackout and 911 it still worked.
Gosh it makes me warm and tingly all over. Well, off to shop at KMart!
... but seriously folks. In my railing against the erosion of my city, I too must ask myself about my decisions of where I shop. More and more I am steering myself away from the bigger national chains and spending what little money I have at the local stores. And some of the small locally owned stores are thriving because lots of us are asking ourselves those hard questions.
So, if you can grab a meal at your local luncheonette verses that at a national chain, go ahead! The counter guy probably will give you extra and remember you the next time and the time after that and soon he'll remember your birthday, your ex-boyfriend, your mother, and that you love the bacon really crispy and the egg cream really sweet. When did that ever happen to you at a Quiznos or Uno's? Hmmm?
Blogger Smoke and Gaslight got on a train one day, arrived in Grand Central Station, walked into a building and got a job. She knew she had come home.
Then something happened. One day here or there one word led to another which led to one place and then another, which led to a box opened, a dusty book discovered, a building explored, and before she knew it, a man, 75 years dead, became her tour guide as she traveled through the mysteries of this city.
Before Third Street Music School moved to 11th Street and before it became a shelter run by the radical Catholic Worker, this is where we spent years of Saturdays and a couple of Wednesdays.
The block was no different from all the other blocks in the neighborhood - tenements and lots of dog doo on the sidewalk. With one exception. The Hell's Angels which mean it was the safest block in the East Village. Except if you fucked with them. Once someone parked near the bikes and accidently touched one of them. The bikers picked up the car and dropped it down and almost beat up the driver who was just a father dropping his kid off at the music school.
That rarely happened since most of us got to Third Street by bus or train.
Trudging past the Angels from the Avenue A bus stop, sidestepping the doo, and once tits were evident, sidestepping the bikers' looks, Saturday was an entire day of misery filled with theory classes, violin lessons, and orchestra rehearsal.
But in the cracks between all these obligations we raced up and down Second Avenue, sneaking into the exotic pet store, pooling pennies together for treats at the small and solitary candy store, and once in a blue moon blowing everything on a hot dog at the other famous kosher deli place on 5th Street. Karen's father said that if you checked any of the garbage cans on Second Avenue you'd find the bologna sandwich that Florence had made me for lunch. We never went further than Moishe's which was closed for Shabbas anyway.
The best part of the day was when our motley crew of mostly girls gathered at the top of the landing. There the handsome neighborhood boy sat making sure everyone got everywhere they needed to go. A viscous game of knucks would ensue, leaving bloody knuckles and swooning hearts and secret crushes which in my case didn't abate for years.
If you weren't James Stewart or Grace Kelly and let's face it no one in New York below 14th Street or above 86th was, that rear window was where private disappointments, thinking the darkness meant they were alone, screamed at one another, and silent prayers of despair and desperation floated up the air shaft with hopes there was a god listening.
Already someone, a New Yorker of more than 50 years had, in hopes of luring her home, told her about an apartment in Brooklyn. "Williamsburg! and the ceilings are 11 feet high and the rent is only $750!" Such deals are murmured as if it were World World II and the Axis powers train lines were going to be bombed.
She pondered over squid legs and crunchy eel if moving here from the cornfields would dampen inspiration. After all, when she did her annual visit she often went to more Museums than I had all year.
It started when on Saturday I tried to walk down the street with Robyn under her umbrella. As I changed sides not to bump into my friend's bag, I suddenly lost sight of her. From deep within me I heard Florence's voice calling to Robyn "Where are you?"
"Oh! I sound just like my mother," I said.
"Where are you?" is what Florence would demand as she sat in that beat up old black chair watching again Singing in the Rain again or Sister Act again.
Unless I was taking a picture I'd usually be sitting next to her, knitting or jotting notes.
Her hand would skitter out from under the blanket and look for mine while never taking her eyes of the screen of a movie she couldn't remember having just seen a week earlier. The minute she'd find my hand, she'd know where I was and hold it tight.
Any knitting or note taking I was doing would cease. And we would watch the movie I did remember seeing over and over and over again and the tap dancing would tap and the singing would sing and the rain would rain and the trains outside would go by and the Sunday afternoon air would be not still or filled but just be Sunday air.
In this picture, it is the rare time she didn't care where I was. Joni had been able to get to New York to visit. And Florence wanted to show her this great movie. "Singing in the Rain! Have you seen it?!"
So this time, after turning it on for her again I got to get up and take a picture of something I knew would never ever happen again.
The safety sought and occasionally found in Home haunted Florence and me for many years, often appearing in our reluctance to leave the house or the throwing out of old objects.
When attempting to introduce a bath mat that wasn't from 1963 or unstained shower curtains that actually matched, Florence's terror of losing something that reminded her of all her years in that apartment exploded in rage and heartbreak and pain, even though all I was doing was introducing a couple of clean shower curtains and a bath mat that wasn't a petrie dish.
But almost like a person who cringed before a camera fearful their soul was being captured, the tossing of her old belongings felt as if history was being ripped out of her. It took weeks of angry exchanges before one day without warning new things were suddenly Home.
In embracing odd and familiar beloved items from her estate - a spatula, a coffee table, the wine opener - I too felt parts of her and parts of me affirmed, still there, brought home. Each thing made my apartment feel like a safer place to be, a home where decades before in desperate hope the pain would end, I had repeatedly curled up in cupboards or corners or benches seeking a safe moment of Home. When O'Keefe suggested replacing her old oversize coffee table with another, I sobbed, the thought of losing what was left of Florence too great to bear.
Tonight as emails flew back and forth to the new person in what once was Florence's home, the kitten, found in a box in the rain on Queens Boulevard, sought a corner of Home for himself - my bag, which often signaled I was leaving him alone for too lonely too long an amount of time. This evening, hearing rain begin outside, without question or pondering he recognized the warm space he needed to have stay, a guarantee his mommy/can opener would stick around a bit longer and that he'd be safe for a while.
You left things on the street. You picked things up from the street. It was the New York Ikea when Ikea was still just in Sweden and New Jersey.
Beds, chairs, mattresses, bureaus, shelves, knick-knacks, desks, cupboards, plates, cups, coats, even shoes. Florence had many, many chairs gotten from departing neighbors, Coney Island vendors and street corner garbage heaps. I had many many chairs and surprisingly many many tables from departing roommates, stoop sales and street corner garbage heaps.
But now even if the items are left to be taken on sidewalks or by trash cans, even if there is a note that says TAKE ME, I feel a hesitancy, an embarrassment as it were that thirty years after furnishing my first and only home from the remnants of other people's lives, I am still too broke to buy things new.
In the final sweep of emptying Florence's apartment, things have come in and things now wait to go out, this time maybe to a friend, or neighbors.
Or if left on the street corner, maybe to someone still brave enough to pick it up and take it home.
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.