Avenue B & E. 4th St., NY, NY 10009

Neighborhood: East Village

When I was a kid, Avenue B was a neighborhood for the working poor. Old guys would sell hot knishes from a portable oven on wheels for a nickel, and in my family, that was considered “eating out.” We didn’t have a phone, or even a radiator, until the city made the landlady put one in. We did have a TV – after all, we were Americans, but only just…the culture inside 45 Avenue B was still pretty close to turn of the century Sicily, where the fine cuisine was a cappozelle – a whole sheep’s head. Imagine that on the dinner table. I was convinced it was staring at me, and one of my three older brothers would helpfully put an eyeball on a fork and chase me into the hallway with it. I was always antsy at the dinner table after that, and it took my mother months to get me to an eye doctor because I feared some weird eyeball karma.

But even with the TV, we still relied on the avenue for our entertainment, and it never failed us. My mom would call me to the window on Sundays when a Puerto Rican family walked by on their way to church, because it was like a parade…the lace, the shiny two-tone fabrics, the Cuban heels…and that was just the guys. They were like a gypsy troupe passing through.

But the best entertainment was across the street, at Margaret’s clothing store next to the hardware store. Margaret and her husband were an aging Jewish couple eking out a living selling cheap dresses, bras and blouses that fell apart after one wash. The sign read “Margaret’s Specialty Shop,” but her specialty was ladies wrestling and every so often she’d stage an exhibition.

Margaret had a sign in her store that said they accepted returns, but it was too small to specify that returns would be honored when Halley’s Comet or the Messiah returned, whichever came later. So every so often we’d hear the screaming that signaled Margaret explaining the nuances of her return policy to some dummy from outside the neighborhood. It would always spill out into the sidewalk. This time, in one corner, Margaret, a short, stocky drugstore redhead, dyed curls looping crazily around her head, stockings drooping around her piano legs, almost touching her sensible shoes, blouse untucked in the heat of battle. In the other, a middleaged woman with her hair escaping from a bun, flabby arms flailing, waving some blouse like a flag, but not in surrender. She had it over on Margaret on reach, but Margaret was battle tested and ready.

“I’m trying to run a business!” yelled Margaret; “Why’d you have the sign?” yelled Bunlady. “I can’t take it back, you wore it!” “I did not!” “You did too, because it stinks!” yelled Margaret, and POW, Bunlady pushed Margaret all the way to her plate glass window, but Margaret recovered and grabbed Bunlady’s blouse, and they grappled for a while, pushing each other and cursing while heads popped out of windows all over the avenue. “Get ’em, Margaret,” shouted Martha across the street from us. (She was a real neighborhood loudmouth, but she saved my dad’s life when he was knifed in the hallway years later.)

Margaret and Bunlady pushed each other around, screaming, and Margaret tried a headlock but Bunlady ducked under and grabbed her blouse; Margaret pulled away but Bunlady got a real grip on Margaret’s hair, and Margaret pulled her husband, a mousy little guy, in between them, but he ducked away pretty quick for an old guy. The fight went out of Margaret after that, and she hung back until Bunlady threw the blouse in Margaret’s face, called her a bitch, and stomped off. Margaret shouted curses in Yiddish after her, picked up the blouse, and returned to the store. “She should do something about that sign,” my mom said.

Mom stopped by the next day and the blouse was back on the rack with a new price tag.

A few years later, Margaret retired. I figure her record was 16 and 1.

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