"The Exhaustion of Diaspora" is a week long series of what it means to leave home and seek home and sometimes even find home, but not necessarily in any particular order.
It is time.
There is nothing much left to do.
Outside it pours cold rain. Inside all the boxes filled with stuff offering the illusion of home to paying inhabitants have been tucked into our childhood bedroom - the bedroom Mom moved into after shaking off an unhappy marriage and suffocating life.
Once she settled into our old bedroom, Florence never slept anywhere else with the exception of two occasions - a brief period in 1976 when she camped out on the living room couch after one of us daughters accidentally returned home. And one late night, a year ago. For some reason I was still in the house, fixing something or other. Penny came in. “Florence is in my bed and won’t leave.” Sure enough, there was Florence, back in her old marital bedroom, curled up in one of our childhood single beds that Penny and Gabriella now took turns sleeping on. “This is my home," Florence stated, refusing to budge. Penny looked exhausted. And we both knew forcing anything wouldn’t work. I started gently cooing,“This is where you slept when you were very unhappy. This was a very unhappy place for you. But let's go back to the bed where you are happy. Your happy bed." And holding hands, she and I walked back to her own bed where, after that unhappy marriage, her joys and her sorrows were her own.
Now what is left of my mother’s joys and sorrows - her ashes and her dust - lie in a canister in my big satchel, nestled between left-over sandwich bags and her old mirror that she used to scrutinize her hand technique at her piano.
There are numbers on the lid of the can and like any good Jew I think of the concentration camps. The distillation of a person into a number.
Buried under armfuls of full bags and a huge knapsack packed to the gills, I rush into hard rain and get to the corner of Columbia and Grand. Only to watch a rare Avenue A bus fly by. Looking down under the Bridge, there’s no Avenue D bus waiting to go. At 11 pm, there won’t be any more buses for a long, long while.
Until gentrification, there were no cabs on Grand Street, ever. Never, ever, ever. Yet there is a silver lining to the influx of the new residents buying at market value, because suddenly - right in front of me - there is a shiny empty taxicab.
As we barrel up Essex Street, I look at the name of the driver. Mr. A. is from Togo. He hasn't been home in five years. It is very difficult being so far away from his family, he tells me. But things aren't good there. And here he is studying mathematics at Columbia University. But yes it is hard. He misses home.
The way he says home and miss and family shreds what's left of my heart.
As Mom packed up her ability to walk and her will to live, I lost the man I loved, the one I believed I would build a home with, share his family with, the man I thought I would live with until death do us part.
After his sudden good-bye, I’d crawl through those bad weekday nights and brutal weekend afternoons and I'd make myself think of my grandmother who, at 17, got on a ship and fled to America, never to see her mother or her favorite brother ever again. And I’d remind myself, "Who the hell am I to think I am excused from Diaspora? Who the hell am I?"
We leave our homes in boats and planes and taxis and cardboard cans with a bunch of numbers on the top. We leave with hope or in terror. We leave with our hearts broken or our hearts bursting.
But we leave.
The rain pours down. Light skitters across wet streets. Traffic signals change.
*Homeward Bound (Simon & Garfunkel)
I wish I was
Home, where my thoughts escaping
Home, where my musics playing
Home, where my love lies waiting
Silently for me
There is a reason it took the Hebrews forty years to make their way across the desert and it wasn't because Moses refused to ask for directions. It is said God wanted the Hebrews to birth a generation that was born, not into a slave mentality, but into freedom.
Leaving the Egypt of a dangerous neighborhood called my mind is a daily event that often unfolds in solitude and privacy. How wonderful was it, then, to sit down at a friend's table on this auspicious night, along with millions of others around the world, to begin an exodus into a better life and more loving heart.
We were many things at many moments - family, friend, Brooklyn Italian Roman Catholic, neighbor, husband, Jesuit, comrade, mother, brother, sister-in-law, guest, teacher, student, Gay, straight, wandering Jew... mishpocheh.
This evening's journey was the same taken those thousands of years ago and called us to walk its walk. So when a request for the youngest to ask the Four Questions it was someone about to turn 50 who stepped forward.
As in any journey, dishes were filled...
... hands flew with ideas and thoughts...
...until Exodus was done, dessert was served...
...and more talk filled the table, including a Robert Frost poem sung to the tune of 'Hernando's Hideaway' from Pajama Game
It was during this particular exodus and in the midst of my own private and solitary questions that a line misread in Psalm 118 reminded me that as I shed my slave mentality, my journey would bring me to freedom and a new promise land.
And so I walk, calling art to become my deliverance.
In Illinois, they know it's Spring when the baby goats arrive and bounce and jump...
... while looking adorable for the camera. AWWWWW.. look at that adorable little baby goat!
In California, they know it's Spring when the almost eighty year old tortoise emerges, after his winter hibernation, from his garage box ...
...to chomp on his lettuce while the new puppy wonders if that's a ball or a snack. Inter-species love!
And here in New York, we know it's Spring when those flowers on the trees obscure the view of the long line down the block of all the kids who spent the entire night out on the sidewalk screaming wooo wooo and singing that fucking Queen song over and over and over again while waiting on line for the premiere of the new DR. WHO.
** With thanks to J.L. Wong for the Illinois and California.
Cornell Edwards, proprietor of the Flower Stall and a neighbor to us all in the East Village just passed away.
Originally posted Sunday, May 17, 2009
I remember the day because it involved a car.
Maybe I was 10 or 11. My father had not been transferred out to Long Island yet so we had no car. I don't think he even knew how to drive until the transfer. And the only person I knew who did own a car was the uncle of a little boy I played with. That uncle's car had windows that rolled up and down on their own. The uncle's hands rolled up and down on their own as well. Since he hadn't been around the neighborhood in years there were no cars to speak of in my every day life.
Until that Mother's Day.
Paula's father had a car. I am not sure how we all knew where to meet or who was going (since using the telephone was expensive and discouraged in my house) but somehow I weedled my way into the crowded back seat with the girls from the better co-ops by the river so that we could all travel uptown to buy our mothers a mother's day present. A plant.
Prior to this particular Mother's Day, presents consisted of a bottle of perfume that had a tiger skin covered cap and a pair of cooking tongs (used for the next 40 years - don't know about the perfume). After this particular Mother's Day, presents consisted of Mom's request we stop calling her Mom and start calling her Florence.
But on this Mother's Day 'Mom' and presents were still allowed and to have a rare car ride included in the mix was heavenly.
It was cloudy and even a bit cold. The streets were empty and this little store was the only thing open on the block. The selection was dazzling. But to this day I have no memory if I bought anything or not, knowing Florence's dread of any living being that might require her attention. I also have no idea how I had any money, it being highly unlikely my father would have given me any. A vague shimmer of a little cactus for a $1 sometimes swims in my eyes. Regardless, those lost details seemed so unimportant compared to the adventure itself.
And then as all things do, things changed. Mom became Florence, home became other places and plants became exotic and exciting pets that didn't need to be fed every day. I'm not exactly sure when this happened, but one day, a few decades in to living where I now live, I realized the beautiful little plant store around the corner was the very spot of that rare day.
One year in the 1980s a newspaper representing the invisible New York called for submissions to a contest of autobiographies about living in New York. I wrote about the land of the quartchyard (which is how we said courtyard which is where we grew up).
Cindy was part of the story. On my way to deliver the story to the office - this was before email was invented - I ran into Cindy on the street. We walked the envelope together to the offices of the newspaper. On the way, we met one of my "uptown" (ie East Village) friends. I never was more proud as when I introduced Cindy to my friend.
I didn't win. They were wrong. The piece was recently accepted into an anthology about the Lower East Side. And tonight I got the news that Cindy just died. Days before her 52nd birthday. The Land of the Quartchyard (1980s. revised 2006)
I grew up in the good part of a bad neighborhood. I thought we were rich. And, compared to others, we probably were. Rich meant a home that was warm, leak free, more than two rooms, in an apartment building with reasonably clean halls, and an elevator that ran almost all the time. Amalgamated Dwellings. My mother still lives there.
It was called the Courtyard but we pronounced it Quartchyard. I didn’t know I said it like that until my cousins from Philadelphia told me I did. I thought I was talking English like the rest of the world.
Amalgamated was built by garment union people. It was the first North American housing cooperative built in a European courtyard style. A graduate student of architecture told me that in one of those “I-know-NY-I’ve-lived-here-ten minutes” tone of voice. He did take a break from his throne when I told him I had grown up in that there North American European courtyard. The conversation ended when he started talking to me like I was a pushy Jewish woman looking for a husband because that’s what he knew from TV. Go figure these tourists.
Amalgamated may have been the first whatever in north wherever but for us it was nothing but housing we could own at money we could afford. It was working people. It was socialism in brick. It was a mansion compared to the slums in the neighborhood. Mrs. F. on the 6th floor said she remembered watching Amalgamated be built and the neighborhood just abuzz with talk because there was going to be INDOOR PLUMBING and ELEVATORS like “Park Avenue going up in the middle of the Lower East Side.” She told me she was practically fainting when she moved in later.
Gary from the D building grew up in the tougher city projects on the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge. He used to come to the archway of the courtyard and think, “This must be the Garden of Eden.” He really believed it was. When his family moved in, his mother would get him to behave by threatening to tell the management what a bad boy he was and how, if he didn’t straighten up and fly right, they’d have to move back to the city projects. Terrified the shit out of him.
There was a fountain in the middle of the courtyard. There were big gold fish there for a few years, but maybe they got stolen or the alley cats ate them. For many years there were many cats. They all had names. Skinny, Mikey (she had one eye and one kitten every year), Friendly, Kushka (which means cat in Russian). Then the Amalgamated security guard, Mr. H the Cop. who lived in the G building tried to get rid of them. All we got in return was no cats and more mice. He was a survivor, but of what no one told us kids. Marcy said there was a tattoo. I never saw it.
All the old ladies would sit in lawn chairs all around the courtyard. They’d talk about us in Yiddish. I counted on Marcy and Cindy to tell me what they were saying. After a while I just assumed they were saying bad things about me and my family. My parents’ Reform Judaism practically made us Catholics in their eyes. I didn’t wear skirts and went to music school on Shabbos. I also went to the public school on Broome Street. I socialized with goyim. I didn’t observe the high holy days for real. But the old ladies also thought it was nice my mother played such a beautiful piano and gave free lessons to some of the kids in the neighborhood. Now, most of them are dead and the few that are still alive all got memos from the new management. No sitting outside in their lawn chairs. Makes it look tacky and tacky isn’t good when you are trying to sell homes at market rate. The old ladies do it anyways. “Fuck ‘em,” one said. “We were here first.” She said it in Yiddish.
The courtyard had a lot of grass. The only time we got to go on the grass was when it snowed. The rest of the year we walked around it. It used to snow a lot in New York. Don’t get me started on how the kids today runaround like its their personal park. It’s so unfair.
My father would point to the center of the playground between East Broadway and Henry Street and say, “There were tenements there. My family lived there.” All I saw was basketball hoops and empty space. Then he’d point to the corner of Columbia and Grand and say, “That used to be the sweatshop that me and your uncle George worked, weaving baskets. The inspectors would come and we’d hide in the back because we were underage.” But I only saw a solid brick apartment building and bushes and trees. I tried imagining my dad and Uncle George hiding in the bushes. It’s not even called Columbia Street anymore.
My mother tells me a story. She lived in a tenement on Clinton and Division Street. It’s no longer there. There’s a shopping center there now. She lived on the second floor. A print shop was on the first floor and in the basement was the bialy bakery. The oven was built right into the wall. In the middle of the night the deliveryman would call down to the baker, “Hey Seymour.” In those days they were called kuchen, not bialies.
Years later, all the new apartment buildings took the place of tenements and Division Street never left Chinatown. The bialy bakery moved into fancy new digs on Grand and Essex as part of the modern shopping center. A toy store, supermarket, pharmacy the movie house, fabric store. All new.
And years after that, my mother walked into the not-so-new-anymore bialy store and asked, “Is there a Seymour here?” He recognized her. She, over 60 and he remembered the young girl who lived on the second floor of a tenement that doesn’t exist anymore. He asked if she lived in Greenwich Village. That’s because she doesn’t look like an old Jewish lady. She looks like teenager. That’s because she is.
He just died recently. Only my mother remembers the voice in the night calling him Hey Seymour. What’s left?
The south side of Delancey was filled with stores and people and music and Dave’s beauty parlor where my whole family got our hair cut. I stole my first thing from the newsstand between Clinton and Suffolk, a penny stick of gum. But my mother caught me and made me not only return it, but apologize to the man behind the counter. They razed everything in the 1960’s. There’s still nothing there. For the last forty years every Wednesday afternoon Dave goes around and cuts and styles people’s hair in their apartments.
The best meatball hero sandwich I ever had was on Grand between Pitt and Ridge, but now there are more apartment buildings, Ridge doesn’t live there anymore and I have to look at a map to remember. How many people still say Willet Street?
The toy store is now a donut factory and the donuts cost $2.50. Each. The movie house is a clinic. The grumpy old man who sold fruit by the bus stop is still there but nobody knows why. The bodega has been gutted to become another outpost of the hippest pizza parlor from the east village and the streets are filled with the kind of people growing up we never saw anywhere except on TV shows like Dynasty and the Brady Bunch and maybe Dick Van Dyke. And now Amalgamated is considered luxury housing with apartments going for almost One Million Dollars. If my parents were starting life over again, we couldn’t afforded to live there.
When we were eleven or maybe twelve, I snuck cigarettes with Cindy on the roof of our building, her cigarettes; I was just along for the ride. But it was me who got in trouble; me labeled a rough girl, a no-goodnik, a bad influence. That’s because I can’t read Hebrew and I didn’t go to Yeshiva.
But when I see Cindy today, both of us trying not to indulge anymore in bad habits, we hug hello not just because we still love each other very much, but because we understand what it means to work and live outside the courtyard. And my accent, my original language from a neighborhood of memory, my mother tongue of an illiterate Jews comes to mouth and for a moment I am home, in a home I thought was rich and compared to others probably still is.
When morning chased the bums back into cardboard bedrooms propped against alleyways and chain link fences or for the richer ones, the many dark fleabag hotels that lined the Bowery, the light from these stores took their place and filled our fantasies with glamor only found in fairy tales and movies.
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.