Of all the streets in New York, 12th Street is the one with which I most identify. I’ve never actually lived on it, but it has threaded its way through my life and clung there. The street represents both some of my best and worst times.
Not all of 12th Street, which runs from Avenue C to the West Side Highway, has ensnared me. Just two blocks—those between Fifth and Seventh Avenues—are meaningful. When my parents met in 1955, my mother lived at 31-33 West 12th Street, an 11-story, century-old apartment house named the Ardea. The building has a balconied Beaux-Arts façade of warm cinnamon stone and brick and, because it is bookended by shorter structures, it cuts a distinctive profile on the block.
My mother was 21 at the time, and she worked as a copy coordinator for Geritol’s in-house advertising agency. She lived in a large apartment at the Ardea with five roommates, one of whom had been a Miss Rheingold, the beauty contest that drew millions of ballots throughout the 1950s and rivaled Miss America in popularity. Another roommate had a romance with Marlon Brando. Although my mother said she double dated with them, my father disputes the veracity of this claim. But I think it’s true, and judging from how beautiful she was—tall and slender with deep, green-brown eyes, high cheekbones, and her hair cut in a stylish bob—I’m not quite sure why Brando didn’t date her.
Anyway, my father swept her off her feet, and they were married on February 26, 1956 at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, located nearby at Fifth Avenue and 9th Street.
Now this chronology skips ahead more than 20 years, during which my parents migrated northward, first to the Upper West Side, then Yonkers, and, finally, Connecticut, where my sister and I grew up. In 1977 I enrolled as a freshman at New York University and started walking all around Greenwich Village in an effort to get to know the neighborhood. During my sophomore and senior years, I lived in Rubin Hall, a dormitory with the swanky address of 35 Fifth Avenue. Each time I rounded the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, two blocks north, I always marveled at the manicured greenery of First Presbyterian Church, the embodiment of an urban pocket oasis.
I was vaguely aware that my mother had carried on a madcap singles life in a building somewhere on West 12th Street, but I was more captivated then by the West Village address where my father lived when he met her, 10 Downing Street (a nondescript brick structure at the corner of Sixth Avenue, which doesn’t in the least resemble the British Prime Minister’s grand residence at the same address in London). Having heard one too many tales about my steady college diet of cereal topped with Sweet’N Low, my mother would take me out for a meal at least once a week in the Village to rescue me from the inedible dorm food. We often ate across the street from Rubin at Feathers, a ground-floor restaurant with big picture windows at 24 Fifth Avenue, an apartment house that had formerly been the Fifth Avenue Hotel.
Shortly after I graduated in 1981, my parents bought a pied-a-terre in the John Adams, a massive 1960s white-brick high-rise at 101 West 12th Street, on the northwest corner of Sixth Avenue.
In 1983, my closest college friend, Ellen, moved with her husband into an apartment at 125 West 12th Street, a prewar, six-story building separated from the John Adams by a narrow brownstone. Between visits to my parents and Ellen, I spent a lot of time on 12th Street in those days, and I often imagined that Ellen’s building, with its trim window boxes and clipped, fenced hedgerow, sniffed haughtily up at the John Adams, a swaggering behemoth that probably blocked views and sunlight for some of the residents of 125 West 12th when it was erected.
In June of 1984, a truck struck my mother as she crossed the street in front of the John Adams. She was taken to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s Hospital at 12th Street and Seventh Avenue. The accident left her with three fractured ribs and three pelvic fractures.
Ellen called me two weeks later and said, “Look in today’s ‘Metropolitan Diary’ column in The New York Times.”
A former volunteer ambulance attendant who had helped my mother after she was hit had written an item about the incident, noting that, despite what had just happened to her, she was concerned about only one thing: “Please would somebody call my husband? Just tell him that I got hit by a truck and it wasn’t my fault.” Although my mother’s typical female response is funny and touching, I also find her self-doubt pathetic and heart-breaking in light of the darker turn her life took soon after.
In late 1985 she sank into a clinical depression from which she never recovered. On a weekday the following June, despite her lifelong fear of heights, she sat repeatedly on the windowsill of her apartment until neighbors noticed her and alerted the police. They promptly delivered her, once again, to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s, where the doctor who examined her pronounced her psychotic and recommended a stay in a controlled environment—a psychiatric ward, where she spent a week.
The oppressively intensifying heat of that July and August mirrored my mother’s deepening disintegration. We didn’t trust her to be alone anymore, so on nights when my father was out of town on business, I’d join her at their apartment. I was finally residing on 12th Street, but hardly in the way I had envisioned.
My mother’s second suicide attempt, on September 15, 1986, was successful. My father discovered her body when he returned home from work. I arrived there soon after he called me, having hurtled in a taxi down to 12th Street from the Upper West Side. I remember that as I sat in the back of the taxi, staring at a yellow-foam-stuffed gash in the black seat next to me, I became dimly aware of the violent rip my mother’s suicide had made in the fabric of my world.
Her body was slumped across the bed, and the police had draped a blanket over her. A bloated foot, mottled purple and blue, stuck out from under the blanket. Next to her on the night table stood a glass of water, the bottles of pills on which she had overdosed, and a note. I desperately wanted to lift the blanket and see her face a final time, but my family and the police who had been assigned to stay with us to await the medical examiner and morgue wagon dissuaded me from doing so.
As a young woman striking out on her own in New York, 12th Street had been the site of such promise for my mother. The street was not only part of the physical architecture of her life, but also a feature of her interior landscape. I shared this link to 12th Street with her, and when she killed herself there, the street became a source of profound anguish for me. For a long time after she died, I couldn’t walk down the block from St. Vincent’s to the John Adams without feeling the ground shift under me, and I often avoided that block altogether.
In 1990, Ellen and her husband bought a co-op in the Ardea, and it was this confluence that made me realize, Aha!—that’s the building where my mother lived when she met my father. In 1992, my father, happily remarried, sold his apartment in the John Adams and left the city for good.
I wish I could say that the web of 12th Street connections between Ellen, my mother, and me ended at this point, but it didn’t. In 1998 I attended a memorial service at the Ardea for Ellen’s husband, who had also committed suicide. Ellen still lives in the building, and when I visit her, I can think of nothing but our shared history of love and loss on 12th Street.
I can walk down 12th Street now with ease though never without baggage. I have bittersweet memories that, over time, have become so blurred I’m not sure which are mine and which are my mother’s.
Eve Glasberg is a former senior editor at Travel & Leisure. She is now a freelance writer and consulting editor.