Ruth would organize buses for like 150 people from the Henry Street Settlement to go to Jones Beach and once she got everyone settled, she and Florence would lounge by the ocean and talk about anything and everything.
So the other day Ruth had to get her hair cut and I wanted her to talk to these documentary people and Laurel wanted to catch up.
We TRIED to keep up with Ruth but the second we turned away, Ruth was gone and we went up and down Madison Street, going into every hair salon and using every word we knew in Spanish. By the third place we were asking in almost full sentences.
Didn't matter. Nobody had seen her.
So we went back to the benches to catch up.
And while we were there, I took this picture because I couldn't get a picture of the rat that was HOPPING across the grass because it was HOPPING too fast.
Did I mention the rat was HOPPING? With a huge piece of something red in its mouth.
You'd take a picture of the sky too.
Here's the thing about sitting on the bench. Eventually, everyone stops to talk to you.
Including this couple.
AND RUTH. who had gotten her hair cut in a salon by the bridge on
Madison which is why we didn't find her - she just went further than us.
Let's face it. Ruth goes further than all of us. But she was tired and she didn't want to go to any documentary film thing but she'd sit on the bench and if they called, then she'd go....
And everybody started talking, and in the tradition of the Lower East Side, talking all at the same time:
so-and-so and the heart attack on Essex Street they had been together 40 years two men a real marriage, a good one he's now in a can in the living room....
Are you getting the His-and-Her's shopping carts? Laurel whispers to me. Are you writing this all down?
Forget it! You could get sued for writing this shit down. You gotta hide it in a story and call it fiction.
....what? who's gonna ask if he was Jewish or not? They asked? They asked, he didn't lie and now he... I NEVA HEARD OF A SON how was the broccoli today how much for the cut? Only $14 but I think he wants me to come back usually she's open it's prom season I paid $18 it adds up with the tint the shopping cart is from Amazon? but look it goes this-way-that-way he's coming in from New Jersey you think that pumpkin pie is going to cut itself....
Just as everyone agreed that the shopping cart was fine even if the
front wheels did go this-way-that-way and wild salmon in a can was delicious
with a little vinegar and onion.... Ruth finally said, look are they
going to interview me for that documentary or what...
....and that's when they called to say come on by we're ready for you.
And Ruth told them a story about her life and our neighborhood.
Sundried wha? And what was with the subway tile you see everywhere but the subway?
I winced. I'm not sure why but I did. All I hoped was that no one I knew would ever give this to me thinking it was a funny present to give to their Jewish friend.
I wasn't even sure what to think about some of the names. But somehow the Czar and Bubby on the same menu seemed a bit...? I mean even I know the song from Fiddler on the Roof where they sing "God Bless and keep the Czar far away from us". On the other side of the menu board I don't think counts.
The nice, friendly young people behind the counter were very nice and friendly as I told them how ridiculous it all was and could I please have one bialy and a pumpernickel everything bagel which is one new innovation I agreed with? Because whoever thought of that was a genius.
The sundried tomato one really IS good, the woman said but we're out.
NO! I'm not doing it - that's up there with cinnamon raisin bagels. NO!
Then I asked if lots of old timers complained about the changes...
Yep. She said. They also buy a lot.
The bagel and bialy officially lasted not very long.
I wonder what the rugelach is like.
Kossars. It looks silly but boy does it all taste delicious.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Doug, Shawn and the Mariner coaxed me into a sea I had only seen in pictures. And there we saw a city of fish. All kinds, living in different nooks and crannies of rocks and coral and some weird concrete slabs - I had no idea how those slabs got on the bottom of the ocean but there were lots of fish and even some lobsters that were glad to nestle underneath.
And then I thought about all the fish living in tanks. Like the little guy I passed so often on my way home who always came up to the glass to look back at me. I wondered if he missed his city like I missed mine.
All those years yearning for a TV were spent between these bookcases at the Seward Park Library.
Florence, seeking her own escape, parked me by a stack of Charles Addams books and disappeared into another row. Those pictures were not macabre to me. Oh no. They were a glamorous call to adventure. And perhaps an unsightly end.
And soon after that I graduated back down to the the first floor and the young adult corner where, as only it could be on the lower east side, there were shelves and shelves of books on young people surviving or not surviving the holocaust and one about a boy kissing another boy. Gobbling up those books, three or four at a time, I felt so less alone with the difficulties I faced every day. Sometimes life hurt and was frightening and confusing. Especially as a kid becoming a teenager.
Those years of curling up in wood and paper on East Broadway were as normal as breathing or walking or dreaming. I had no interest to write my own book. Nor did I have dreams of being a writer. Just like Florence, I loved the relief of an escape, disappearing into a world I wished I could live in or one I was glad I didn't.
Perhaps all those words that poured off the page and into my heart had plans of their own. Perhaps filling myself so full was what made all those words push into my fingers to tell my own story. Who knows?
What is known more than fifty years later is that a library is a sacred place. It holds for us a million stories from around the world, letting us know we are never alone in our experience, and assuring us of other doors to other ways we didn't know about.
And now the Seward Park Library is even more than that. It is now a place that will hold and protect all the stories we don't write down. They are collecting oral histories of us lower east siders.
So if you grew up below 14th Street and above the "bottom" and you know you are from the Lower East Side, join in. Because every story, whether it is on a shelf or one we tell over dinner too many times, could be someone's door to a wonderful escape and other possibilities.
your story and become a "book" for some kid, maybe one just like me, who
needs to know about childhoods and challenges and other doors.
The Lower East Side Oral History Project
The Seward Park Branch of the New York Public Library aims to collect
audio of memories and stories pertaining to the Lower East Side,
including Chinatown, the Bowery, and the East Village.
Stories may run 45 minutes to 2 hours long. It's a rather informal
procedure, more of an extended story telling than an interview.
Interviews may be done individually or as a group. We are hoping to
gather stories from all ages, times periods, backgrounds,
and outlooks--and you don't have to be a lifelong Lower East Sider to
The stories collected will be a part of the Lower East Side Oral History
Project, which will have its place among oral history initiatives
throughout New York which the New York Public Library has been
collecting for posterity.
Participants will need to sign a release form and have their picture
taken, or send a picture they would like to use for the project's
To participate, please contact Andrew Fairweather via email (email@example.com) or telephone (212-477-6770)
at the Seward Park Library.
The Seward Park Library
192 East Broadway
New York, NY 10002
Her every move vibrating with happiness and determination, showing me one adorable tea cup after another, and glasses you can’t buy in stores anymore unless it is the knockoff variety.
And of course books. I’m a sucker for books.
In a daze I barely took in the details as they were unwrapped and then repackaged in a box for me to take home. That moment was reserved for when I was standing in my kitchen, carefully unwrapping each one until the floor was covered in newspaper.
Details galore: bright flowers, gilt edges, silver hand painted patterns and glasses as blue as the sky. I’ve never seen cups like these up close...unless you count movies where the ladies wear white satin gloves and pour tea from a silver pot and ask for two cubes of sugar.
This past weekend, I decided I wanted to have my morning cup of coffee in one of Jutta’s teacups. The cream colored one with ornate flowers was my favorite with the word “Bavaria” written on the bottom of the saucer and the cup.
No fancy sugar cubes, but a dash of it, combined with coffee and creamer. I could have stared at the cloud swirls the creamer made on top for hours.
It took a vintage teacup to show me that I have been making coffee wrong all this time. I can’t explain it, but everything blended perfectly. I could savor and taste every part. Thinking that lightning can’t strike twice I made another cup of coffee before heading to work today, with the same adorable teacup.
While Her New York is on vacation, encores from the beginning. Originally posted September 14, 2008:
One night, in the early 1980's, I left New York for a brief funeral.
In those days there were only three ways to get to Philadelphia - Greyhound, Amtrak and NJ Transit. Because death had come suddenly, I needed to leave within hours of getting the rare long-distance phone call telling me to come. Greyhound left every two hours.
I sat up front so I wouldn't get car sick. The bus was empty, the night was bleak and the roads leaving New York were fast. I am not sure how it began but the driver and I began to talk. It would not be the last time a man turned to me to confess.
He had just gotten back from World War II and out of boredom and mild curiosity started dating a young woman. One day he showed up at her house to find her and her mother busy addressing envelopes. "What are you doing?" he asked. "Sending out invitations to our wedding," the young woman replied.
So he got married to someone because of proximity and minor distraction and maybe postage already spent.
And he did all the right things. Brought home the bacon, raised their daughter, showed up at the functions husbands were supposed to show up at. And he stayed married. For decades, was still married and now his own daughter was married, he had a granddaughter, apple of his eye, told me if a pedophile ever came near her he'd kill him, just kill him didn't care what would happen next.
But. All these years with the woman he married. He hated the way she breathed when she slept. Hated it. Hated being in the bed with her listening to her breathe. The sound of her life.
While Her New York is on vacation, encores from the beginning.
Originally posted September 7, 2008
At 9pm tonight, Coney died. Condos will be built in its stead.
The place my mother, a teenager, went to in the middle of the night to swim naked, the place my aunt met her future husband, both barely teenagers, she wearing a swimsuit and telling me 60 years later "he liked me even after seeing my thighs," the place my grandmother took herself alone, no one really knowing what she thought or who she missed, the place said grandmother took me, dragging me into the ocean for the first time...
...feeding me Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies that forever after tasted like sand and salt to me, the place my mother, no one knowing what she thought or who she missed, took my sister and me early mornings so that we could get a good swim in and eat a hotdog for breakfast before returning to responsibilities...
...the place every New Years Day, our family went to, frozen on the boardwalk, but knowing nowhere else to to be, the place I could, in desperate twenties, needing to feel like I had someone beyond my own skin, go to and find my mother sitting in the same spot as she had for years - in front of the Aquarium,
The place I knew more than I knew the thoughts of my grandmother or my mother or even my own. The place I knew more than I knew what my grandmother or mother or even I missed.
Like Calvino's Invisible Cities and my mother, Florence's life, my private coney has become just a place within memory.
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.