Mr. Beller's Neighborhood https://mrbellersneighborhood.com New York City Stories Since 2000 Mon, 29 Mar 2021 17:01:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7 Encounter in Graniteville https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/03/encounter-in-graniteville https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/03/encounter-in-graniteville#respond Sun, 28 Mar 2021 13:56:45 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11693

My Covid-19 project has been to drive to one of the many Staten Island parks that I haven’t previously visited and walk around, usually alone, and take pictures on my phone. I try not to think about the future too much. A few months ago, I drove to Graniteville Quarry Park—not to be confused with the nearby Graniteville Swamp Park, from which I was chased by mosquitoes at the end of summer.

The park is small, about the size of one and a half city blocks. It slopes downhill from Wilcox Street to Forest Avenue, just across from Pep Boys and the Harley-Davidson dealership. Bennett Quarry has been closed for over a century. Despite the park’s name, it wasn’t granite they extracted there but trap rock, a much cheaper stone used for paving stones, rail beds, and concrete mixes.

A few long, grooved outcroppings of the gray rock testify to a more productive, if not nobler, history for the scrubby grounds. About halfway down the slope, there is a bowl-shaped indentation edging on to a large, nearly flat, surface of the rock. There are empty Beck’s bottles, cigarette packs, and scattered take-out containers, a perfect hangout for local kids and, perhaps, some “grown-ups” too.

The day was cloudy but bright. I was barely 20 yards from Wilcox Street and deciding if I wanted to descend into the bowl, when I heard footsteps trampling on the leaves behind me. I turned to see a Latino man moving rapidly in my direction.

A shadow of suspicion crossed my mind. Was he going to ask me something? Demand something? Instead, he made a quick vertical gesture with his hand to show he was just cutting through the park. “Good morning, my friend,” he said as he approached. I gave a small wave in return. “No problem,” I said.

He passed by me, with more than sufficient social distance, following a well-trod path through the bowl. With his heavy hooded sweatshirt, boots, baseball cap, and backpack, he had the look of a day laborer. Most likely, he was making his way to one of the spots along Forest Avenue where workers wait in hope of being taken on by a contractor. Or perhaps he was on his way to work at one of the car washes or another business along the avenue.

He had wanted me to know that he posed no threat. I had wanted him to know that I hadn’t felt threatened or suspicious. What right did I have to be suspicious? After all, he was the one on his way to work—and not the remote kind that I had been doing safely from home. I was the guy in the woods taking pictures of fallen trees, stones, and beer bottles, while feeling vaguely conspicuous.

Do we have a right to our suspicions? They stretch below our normally complacent surfaces like ribs of trap rock. We cannot ever fully extract them but we can at least expose them to the light of self-reflection.

I took a few more photos and returned to my car. I looked for my friend among the day laborers waiting along Forest Avenue as I drove past, but couldn’t make him out.

***

David Allen is a professor of English Education at the
College of Staten Island. His wanderings on the island can be seen on
Instagram @dallennfa

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Doing My Homework at Plato’s Retreat https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/03/doing-my-homework-at-platos-retreat https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/03/doing-my-homework-at-platos-retreat#respond Tue, 23 Mar 2021 22:02:06 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11672

It’s the swinging 70’s. Everyone I know has tons of sexual partners. I am 28 and only lost my virginity two years ago to a farm boy I met at The Guthrie Theater. The romance continues for a while when I get back to New York, but then, he writes me a Dear John letter. I’m sobbing hysterically when the phone rings. It’s Danny Ramirez, a teenager who works as an intern at a theatre company where I’m doing a show.

“What time is rehearsal tomorrow?” Danny lives just around the corner and we often walk to the theater together.

”I don’t know. My boyfriend just broke up with me.”

“That’s terrible. Why don’t you come over? My mother’s at a parent-teacher conference. I’ll make you dinner.”

I throw on my coat and hurry over to Danny’s apartment. Dinner is chicken stuffed with hamburger meat and wilted lettuce, served in a Sealtest ice-cream carton. I sniffle all the way through it. After dinner, Danny tries to cheer me up by giving me a hug. Suddenly, he hears a noise in the other room.

”Un momento.” He runs out and then I hear a loud bang. Danny comes back.

“I just shot a rat.”

Somehow I find this thrilling. I jump on him and we end up having sex on his kitchen floor. Afterwards, he says he’ll see me soon, but he’s not at rehearsal the next day, and he doesn’t call in the days to come. I curse men—even 16-year-old ones. Why do they always lie to me, reject me, abandon me? 

I beat myself up for anything I might have done to drive them away and decide to blast through whatever is keeping me from having a decent relationship. A friend suggests I take a weekend workshop called “Tantra—Finding Your Higher Self through Sexual Pleasure.”

I enter a darkened loft in Soho with candles and incense burning. A voice wafts out from the darkness.

“Om Shanti. Come in, sit down.”

I join a group of people sitting in a circle. The leader is a Long Island housewife who shares that she used to be named Betty Schwartz. Then Tantra changed her life, and she took the spiritual name Govinda.

We go around the circle and talk about our first sexual experiences. Everyone else started having sex when they were barely into their teens, and has been going at it hot and heavy ever since. When it’s my turn, I lie and say that my first sexual experience was when I was 21. Even so, people can’t believe it. “You mean, like when you were a teenager, you didn’t even like masturbate?” asks a man who looks like Jesus’ younger brother.

“No. I didn’t know about it.”

“Bummer” he pats my arm. Then he tells the group he’s here to break through his addiction to prostitutes.

Another woman confides that she hates her body in spite of the fact that she recently lost 200 lbs. Govinda tells her to take off her clothes. Then she has each member of the group tell the woman something that they like about her body. Her flesh hangs on her bones in wrinkled saddlebags. I try not to stare. When it’s my turn, I tell her ” Uh… I like your… eyes.”

Then it’s the turn of a couple from Queens who wear matching polyester pants suits. The wife complains her husband can only do it three times a night. They want to go for the gold. Govinda suggests the husband anoint his penis with honey and black pepper. She also says if he stops himself right before ejaculating, he can have orgasms that go on all night long. I try to imagine this. My sexual encounters usually last five minutes, after which I get up and change the sheets.

When I tell this to Govinda, she says “Your sexuality is blocked by your kamachas—the armor that prevents you from experiencing sexual bliss. Everyone has kamachas, and they have to go.”

So, we write our hang-ups on slips of paper. Then we burn them in a dhuni fire that Govinda sets in a hibachi grill on the fire escape. On my slip of paper, I write “My overwhelming hatred of the evil, disgusting male sex.” Then I decide it’s not spiritual enough, so I cross it out and write, “Fear of letting go.”

After some guided meditation, we are given mantras. Mine roughly translates into “I’m ok, sex is ok.” At the end of the day, Govinda gives out a homework assignment: “Do something tonight to break through your kamachas.”

We are given handouts, portable copies of the Kama Sutra, and aphrodisiacs. For the men, there is a powder of dried peacock bones. The women get dried monkey turds. These will supposedly cause us to have a transcendent sexual experience.

I stop for dinner at Howard Johnsons.  Wracking my brains for something that will cure me of my sexual hang-ups once and for all, I order some juice and mix in the monkey turd powder. Although Govinda claims it has awakened her inner tigress, after a couple of sips I feel nauseated. I run to the bathroom and heave up the monkey turds.

I sit on the floor, breathing hard when I notice a sign on the wall of the stall. “For a good time, go to Plato’s Retreat.”

I suddenly remember reading about it in The Village Voice. It’s a sex club in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel. I decide it’s the perfect place for me to do my homework. But I don’t want to go alone. I swallow my pride and call Danny.

“Are you ok, I haven’t seen you for a while?”

“Oh yeah, my mom grounded me because I failed Math.”

“Are you still grounded?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Well, I was thinking of going to this sex club called Plato’s Retreat tonight. I’m uh… doing some research for a class, and I thought you might want to go.”

“Wow, sounds cool. I’ll sneak out after my mom goes to bed. See you around 11.”

I go home to dress for my night of passion. My wardrobe consists of Village Store skirt and sweater sets and Laura Ashley dresses. I picture Plato’s Retreat like a Greek Temple full of beautiful people wearing togas and loincloths and crowns of olive branches in their hair.

“I have nothing to wear,” I wail to my cat. Finally, I settle on a flowered Laura Ashley frock with a lace collar. In order to break through my kamachas, I undo the top two buttons. I also buy a red rose and stick it behind my ear.

At the witching hour, Danny and I rendezvous at the Ansonia. We walk down a long staircase with black walls with blue lights. At the bottom is a Morticia Adams clone in a booth.

Although there’s a sign that says, “No one admitted under 18,” she doesn’t give Danny a second look. She tells us, “Give me $50 and sign in.” To my surprise, Danny pays for both of us. Then he signs “Daniel Ramirez.” I am so moved by his generosity that I sign “Chiquita Rodriguez.” He is given a set of keys, one for the front door and one for our own private sex room.

The doors swing open. It looks like a scene out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Everyone is naked, but far from being the beautiful people, most of the people there are seriously out of shape. Danny grabs my hand. He’s trembling and running his other hand through his Afro.

On our left is the pool. We notice two women in it comparing shades of nail polish while they are being rammed from behind by a pair of hairy, pot-bellied bald guys.

Danny gulps and averts his eyes. Then he nudges me and points out a stage on our right. A singer who looks like a beat-up Olivia Newton-John is belting out, “Those Were the Days.” In the audience a woman with a red beehive jerks off an elderly man in a wheelchair in time with the music.

In the center of the room is a buffet table with deli platters and cans of Cheez Whiz. We look at a woman with Jodhpur thighs with her legs spread while a man squirts Cheez Whiz into her.

Danny pulls on my hand, “Let’s split.”

“Now Danny, you paid $50. We have to get our money’s worth. Let’s go to our private sex room.”

When we find it, neither of us is in the mood, but we go through the motions, just to prove to ourselves we are swingers.

“Can we go now?” Danny asks.

”No. I have to break through my kamachas. Let’s take off our clothes and go for it.”

I drag Danny back into the main room. A middle-aged couple wearing lots of gold chains approaches us.

”Hey hot-stuff.” The man stares at my naked body.” I’m Fred and this here’s Myrna.”

“Nice to meet you.” He reeks of Canoe and the Pabst Blue Ribbon he’s got in his hand.

I search for something to say. “Where are you from?”

“The Bronx. Nice tits,” he says.

Myrna looks at Danny’s crotch “Does el niño want to play?”

Danny takes a step behind me.

I try to change the subject “The Bronx. How interesting. What do you do there?”

“I’m a fireman, ladder company 99. The whole station house is here. We’re celebrating. Last week we put out a big fire up on Fordham Road. Saved a bunch of people. Want to get it on, baby?”

“We’re… uh, taking a break.”

Fred belches. “Well, then, wanna watch Myrna and me do it”.

“Uh.”

“We’ll be up in the orgy room.”

Fred points to an elevated platform behind us. The floor is covered with mattresses and the ceiling is mirrored. People are going from body to body, having sex like they’re on an assembly line. Fred and Myrna climb the stairs. Danny’s eyes bulge out of his head. He starts after them. I pull him back.

“I don’t want any part of this. But I’d like to get a closer look. Let’s go up there. Just lie on top of me and let me watch.”

As I lie under Danny, I see men jumping from woman to woman, sperm dripping from them. Women going down on one man after another, panting and whooping. The temperature must be 100 degrees. It smells like that spoiled meat I took back to Shopwell last week.

Danny whispers, “Flip.”

We roll over so that he can get an eyeful. After what seems like an eternity, he finally says, “I think I’ve gotten my money’s worth.”

We make our way to the door. On the way out I pick up a matchbook that says Plato’s Retreat.

The next day in the Tantra workshop, Govinda asks, “Who did their homework?”
Hands shoot up.

Young Jesus confides that he’s overcome his need for prostitutes. He and the woman with saddlebag arms practiced some of the exercises in the Kama Sutra last night and now they are one soul in two bodies.

The Queens couple tells of their trip to The Pink Pussycat and show everyone their French tickler.

Then it’s my turn. I hand my matchbook from Plato’s Retreat to Govinda. “Pass it around,” I say

She gasps, “Wow, you went to Plato’s Retreat. You of all people. I’m sure you destroyed a whole bunch of kamachas. But weren’t you afraid?”

“No. I was just doing my homework.”

***

Prudence Wright Holmes is an actor, author, monologue detective, acting coach, playwright, seeker, Mom, Sister Goddess, and former resident of Bexley, OH. Find our more about her and her work at: prudencewrightholmes.com

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Crotona Park https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/03/crotona-park https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/03/crotona-park#comments Sun, 14 Mar 2021 14:37:37 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11637

Blanche, my mother, was past thirty, an old maid by the standards of the mid-twentieth century. She finally picked herself up and hauled herself off to a lefty resort in the Catskills, the kind of place where people were more likely to play Twenty Questions than tennis. There she met my father, Harold, who was apparently quite good at playing Twenty Questions. His mother had died when he was four, and his father died the year that Harold was discharged from the Army.

Harold went back to his job at the Post Office. He had dropped out of City College before the war and was now finishing his degree at night. His classes were filled with ex-GIs who worked during the day and fell asleep during their night classes.

Up in the Catskills, Blanche was quite taken with Harold’s fount of knowledge. He was smart in that neuroatypical way that used to be called Asperger syndrome. He could tell you what day of the week the Battle of Hastings was fought. In case you are wondering, Google says it happened on a Saturday.

Harold lived with his stepmother in the East Bronx, near the zoo. Blanche was living with her parents in the West Bronx, two blocks off the Grand Concourse. In the Bronx, west was generally better than east. The two of them got a ride together back to the city. When they pulled up in front of Blanche’s apartment house, my father was intimidated. The building had an elevator, and the windows in my mother’s apartment faced the street. That was a very big deal back in those days. Although Blanche had left Marxism behind, she still harbored anti-materialistic tendencies. So someone who could wallop his adversaries at Twenty Questions was, to her, more impressive than someone whose windows faced front.

As a child, I spent a lot of time looking through my family’s photo albums. I’d see Blanche and Harold, before they had kids, wandering around in an enchanted forest. These wanderings turn out to have taken place in Crotona Park. Since everyone is now dead there’s no one to ask, but I have the impression that my parents would have “sleepovers” in the park on hot summer nights, complete with pre-marital sex.

I remember Crotona Park, although I had never set foot in it. I grew up in Soundview, a crummy neighborhood in the Southeast Bronx. When my family finally got a car (a decade-old Nash) in the sixties, we would drive westward to visit my maternal grandparents, the ones whose windows faced front. And we would pass the park, which looked like the biggest dump I could imagine.    

Crotona Park was named after the Greek Colony of Crotone, known for its Olympic athletes. And though the Bronx is now the poorest borough, it is still the greenest, with the highest percentage of acreage devoted to parkland. It is also the only borough actually attached to the mainland. The four other boroughs are basically former swamps.

Despite Ogden Nash’s 1931 declaration of “the Bronx, no thonx” (which he ultimately apologized for), at that time the Bronx attracted residents from parts of the city  that had poor air quality. Several nonagenarians I know left their homes in Queens and Brooklyn in the 1930s and moved up to the West Bronx. I sometimes think of my borough of origin as the Adirondacks of New York City. Historically, the Bronx had a long-standing tradition of curative air. In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe moved to bucolic Fordham in hopes that the country air might heal his wife’s tuberculosis. She lasted another three years. 

My mother was born in 1916, in the Garden State. How New Jersey still has the chutzpah to call itself the Garden State is beyond me.  She lived in Newark, in the back of her family’s grocery store in a Polish neighborhood. Her parents spoke both Yiddish and Polish, but not much English. They relocated to the Lower East Side and then to the Bronx where they opened some kind of deli/bar establishment. Their new home was near Crotona Park. 

My mother told her stories over and over again. One of her favorites was about her first excursion into the Park. She described the experience as magical and claimed that she had never seen a plant before she moved to the Bronx. Years later, she studied botany at Hunter College. 

During her adolescence, her family moved up to Allerton Avenue, which was populated primarily by Italian immigrants, many of who grew rose bushes in their front yards. And just in time for Blanche, the New York City Board of Education built Evander Childs High School on Gun Hill Road.  

My mother loved attending Evander Childs because it was surrounded by green fields with flowerbeds and verdant shrubbery. And even though she now lived quite a hike away from Crotona Park, she always went back. It was well maintained with a swimming pool, bathhouse and boathouse, along with baseball fields, playgrounds, tennis courts and lots of toilets. Much of this was done under the aegis of Robert Moses, who became the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in 1934. He poured a lot of money into the renovation. Yes, the same Robert Moses who, later on, ripped through a huge swath of the South Bronx, providing us with the destructive and much-hated Cross Bronx Expressway. It ran straight through the park, cutting off the northern portion. 

By the 1950s, Crotona Park had become the setting for several high-profile crimes, as gangs were becoming active in the surrounding neighborhoods. Between 1970 and 1980, seven census tracts in the Bronx lost more than 97% of their buildings to fire and abandonment. The Parks Department faced financial shortfalls, and Crotona Park was considered a dangerous area. A serial rapist frequented the park, and muggings, shootouts, fires and stabbings were reported into the early 1990s. 

In 1996, the Friends of Crotona Park was established in an attempt to achieve revitalization. I wondered if the place still looked like a dump. 

There’s only one way to find out. I will report back.

*******************************************************************

So here’s the story. Perhaps the month of the winter solstice is not the best time to judge a park. The weather was crummy; the sky was leaking slush. I saw only one other person walking in the 127 acres that cover the park. It did not seem architecturally remarkable, except for the Crotona Play Center, built in 1936. But the Park’s size, topography and wooded areas did enough to swell my heart.  I could imagine my mother transcendent, transformed by the scope and lush greenery of her surroundings, pretending she was romping in the Forest of Arden.

Crotona reminded me of the park I visit every morning. Fort Tryon Park is a bit down on its heels. Linden Terrace is buckled and cracked, a trip hazard if there ever was one. But it has such heart-stopping views of the Palisades and the 19th Century monastery across the Hudson River and the medieval architecture of the Cloisters, I can easily pretend that I am in Tuscany. 

Parks mean different things at different times. As a child, our only playground was over on Soundview Avenue, a fifteen-minute walk from our house.  But it had swings, so it was worth the schlep. When I finally became a resident of Manhattan at the age of twenty-five, the fact that I could run around Central Park’s Great Lawn every morning made me feel that I had truly conquered this town. And this year when I recovered from Covid at the end of March and came out of quarantine, the first place I headed for was Fort Tryon Park. It was April Fool’s Day. The daffodils were already in bloom and the magnolia buds were starting to open. I could easily understand my mother’s botanical fixation.  

Throughout the past nine months, I’ve clung to my neighborhood. But every morning, if the wind chill factor isn’t too brutal, I have headed north into my own enchanted forest.  By the time I return home, I am absolutely beaming. Sometimes a park is just a park and sometimes it is much, much more.

***

Marissa Piesman recently retired after practicing law for forty years. She is also the author of The Yuppie Handbook and the Nina Fischman mystery series.

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Next Stop the Twilight Zone https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/02/next-stop-the-twilight-zone https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/02/next-stop-the-twilight-zone#respond Sun, 28 Feb 2021 15:30:34 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11573

One afternoon this summer I was on the subway. All was normal. Well, except that we are in a pandemic, which makes venturing down into NYC’s netherworld — one with poor ventilation and tons of non-mask wearers – feel like I am putting my life in my overly sanitized hands. It all seemed surreal. The recent crime surge in New York coupled with a heat wave didn’t help with my anxiety either, especially when being in the subway at midday now feels like it’s 3 A.M. because of the desolate stations. 

I sat daydreaming about life pre-Covid as I headed home on the Q express. But a stop before I reached my destination, I found myself alone. My subway car had completely emptied out. The train signage suddenly changed to say it was the 8th Avenue Local – K train to World Trade Ctr. (I was on the Upper East Side headed uptown, nowhere near 8th Avenue.) Was I hallucinating due to oxygen-deprivation from hours of wearing  my mask in 100-degree heat? Or was this just another glitch in the matrix that is 2020? I had never heard of a K train. Was this the universe’s way of talking to me?  If so, what was it trying to say? 

I quickly googled, and oddly it turns out that the K subway line did once exist – it was originally called the KK line (my initials and nickname!)– but was discontinued in 1976! I couldn’t believe my eyes. Feeling inspired, I snapped a picture of my subway car. This was a great start for a Twilight Zone episode. But in 2020 it was par for the course. 

As I shakily exited the train, I momentarily wondered if I’d be thrust into 1976 – which might have been better than what we are currently facing. I shrugged and headed off, the sun too bright in my eyes, Clorox wipe in hand, like a white flag being used to surrender. 

***

Kelly Kreth is a freelance writer who often feels trapped in a Seinfeldian Hell. She’d like people to love her for her flaws, not in spite of them. That rarely happens.

You can read more by her at: https://youmightaswell.tumblr.com

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Foster Home at Five https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/02/foster-home-at-five https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/02/foster-home-at-five#comments Sun, 21 Feb 2021 14:43:34 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11545

I was only five, but I knew my mom and dad were in court that day fighting over custody rights. The rainy gray outside—plus the turmoil of yelling and crying, nighttime stirrings, and mornings waking up in different rooms or houses or cars, and not understanding what was going on or where exactly was home—had me nodding off at my grandma’s kitchen table. 

I remember fighting to keep my eyes open, jerking my head back up each time it dropped, and eventually letting myself go to sleep, but still being aware enough to feel myself gradually slipping under the table. I was in the non-time between sleep and being awake. The front door opened and my eyes opened for good. My dad was squatting down to me. It was strange to see him in a suit. I came to him in response to his silent gesture: an open hand reaching out. It was strange to see his eyes brimming. He carried me to grandma’s couch, forever covered in plastic.

“You’re gonna have to go away for a while,” he said. “But daddy will get you back soon. I promise.”

“I don’t wanna go.”

“The judge ordered it, Mikey. Just a week or so.” The tears were now flowing. “Quick. Don’t worry.”

The cab, already waiting at the curb, brought us to a police station. It was probably in Poughkeepsie. Googling, just the other day, I think I found the very place matching the imprint in my memory. 

There was a lady waiting outside with an umbrella in the drizzle. “Hello, Mikey,” she said. She only looked at me. It seemed she was refusing to look at my dad. The lady put an arm around my shoulder, leading me to a white car and keeping her body between me and my dad. She got me to the passenger seat, leaving no time for my dad, police officers by his side, to say anything more than “I love you.” She seat-belted me in and off we went. I have seen enough movies to imagine myself at the window, a hand open on the glass for my dad. But I know myself. I go within: focus folding back on to myself, shutting off the outside like the body shuts off blood flow to limbs in the cold.

The lady told me she was a social worker. I do not remember her name. I would be going, she told me, to a nice home with many kids to play with. 

It turned dark as we drove, and she asked me if I wanted McDonalds. My stomach, I remember, was in knots. I said, “No.”

“Don’t you want a happy meal?”

I shook my head no. I can imagine myself crying as well. 

But I can better imagine myself silent. A family violence counselor recently told me I was “guarded.” I was merely criticizing the assessment questions, spotting ambiguities in wording that—with so much at stake—I would need clarified before answering. I am a Doctor of Philosophy, after all. But despite having the washed-up look of the recovering drunk that she admitted she was, perhaps that counselor did sniff out some truth.

We turned down an unpaved driveway, the big lone house, lit up by lights, growing bigger as we approached. And then we were there. The social worker brought me up the stairs to the porch. The door was already open, and the house was lively with kids and light. A lady in an apron said, “Why don’t you go and play with all the other children.” 

The living room was swarming with children of all ages. Children were climbing on the jungle gym at the back of the room. Children were jumping on the furniture. There was even a toddler in a playpen. I was in no mood to play. Instead, I lay down on the couch, prayer hands between my legs, which is how I still sleep now.

A little black boy, whose face was painted white, came up to me. He watched me for a while, perhaps studying my pain. He offered me a bite of his corndog. Several of the kids were walking about the jungle-gym living room holding corndogs. I refused his offer, even though I sensed he was trying to make me feel at ease. The boy was even younger than me, I think. But it seemed on some level he understood what I was feeling.

Aside from that first day of foster care, only random memories come back. These are less and less, and with diminished vivacity, now that I am in my thirties.

I remember being in the backyard on a sunny day. One kid, perhaps between eight and ten, was pulling up grass and inspecting the blades. Noticing me watching him, he said, “Onions!” He showed me the roots, and there were little bulbs. I helped him pull more up. Imitating him in wiping off as much dirt as possible, I then followed him in eating the bulbs. The sharp and pungent taste, the crisp and crunchy texture, the burning-biting burst—I recall all these sensations, but wonder if I actually had them at the time. And yet I must have. Only a few years ago, when I was still married, I found such grass in my lawn and revisited those sensations.

Finding and nibbling these little bulbs might have been, for all I know, one of the only times I surrendered to pleasure while in foster care. The saddest thing to me now is not when I picture myself there in shutdown shock over what was happening to me. Nor is it picturing myself moping because I wanted to go home, or hysterical with fear that I would never see my parents again. It isn’t yelling at the foster mother “You’re not mommy!” The saddest thing, rather, is when I picture myself, looking backward, losing myself in play, as I did that day picking grass onions.

For whatever reason, I also remember my foster mother cooking asparagus in a big pot one night. “I’m not eating that,” an older black girl said. I had seen her only a few times before that, but I had a deep need to know her. She talked back and would go around repeating that she was leaving soon because she was about to be eighteen. I followed in her steps and refused to eat the asparagus too. It has taken me years to work asparagus into my diet. And for the longest, I was not open to corndogs.

A couple of times during my stay, I got picked up by a social worker—the same white car, but a different lady. We would go to what I assume to be City Hall in Poughkeepsie. I say assume, because in my late teens that is where my dad and I went to visit my sister, who was herself in foster care at the time. We brought her a coloring book and disposable camera, while grandma and grandpa waited in their junkyard Mazda (hand-brushed red). My dad—nervous—had guzzled what he could of a forty in a nearby park—before asking me, absurdly, to carry it inside city hall in the leg of my sweatpants (“You got baggy pants, boy.”), and then burying it in the snow next to a bench (“Gotta keep it cold”) when I refused to bring it in. 

Having seen supervised visitation from that side of things has no doubt colored my memory of how my parents’ earlier visitations went with me. Perhaps there was the stock coloring book, yes. No pictures were taken—not that I ever saw at least. My mom, I think, brought along my teddy bear, the one that I had since I was a baby and whose eyes and nose I had bitten off. The visits were quick, though. I remember that. I felt that. I imagine my parents cried, but I do not know if I cried. Did they worry that I was forgetting them, getting accustomed to a new family? That is what I would worry about in their shoes.

After a while, I guess I did get accustomed to living in the foster home. I remember sleeping in bed one afternoon and being jarred awake as I heard the foster family van driving away. I jumped to the window and watched it move down the dirt driveway. The house was quiet. No swarm of children in the living room. I was alone. I ran outside into the same gray drizzle as on the day when I was taken to the police station. Like a nightmare, my socks sunk deep into the mud. I screamed out for the van, “Wait—you forgot me!” Red brake lights flashed in the gray, I remember. But it was only in preparation to turn onto the street. The foster father, a bearded man, found me kneeling in the mud. They were just going to the supermarket, he told me.

Then the day came when I was to go home. Not much longer than a month had passed. A social worker, in that white car again, buckled me in the passenger seat. I was happy to say “Bye” to everyone from the window. 

Since I knew I was leaving, it is easy to imagine that part of me wished I could stay a little longer to play. I know, though, that if by some magic a few extra hours had been offered to me, I would not have taken it because of my fear that the chance to go home could be withdrawn.

The car stopped along the curb in front of a white house. I did not register right away that this was a planned destination. A feeling of being betrayed flooded through me, as the social worker unbuckled my seat belt. But she merely put me in the back seat and told me, “Don’t worry. We just have to make a stop.” The sensation receded as she walked to the house. I know the ebb and flow of that betrayal wave. I feel it at least once a month, and more like once a week, with romantic partners. So perhaps I project too much into the past. 

The social worker came back with her arm around the shoulder of a black girl, probably between twelve and fourteen. The girl was crying. I assumed she was headed off to a foster home. I felt sorry for the girl. Empowered by the euphoria of going home, I had an urge to console her, to touch her shoulder and tell her, “It’ll be okay. Look, I’m going home right now. And it wasn’t long at all.” I imagine, now at least, that I also wanted to say, “Take the McDonald’s if it’s offered.” Words were right on the cusp of coming out, but they never did. 

Instead of the police station, I was dropped off in front of my old house. My mom and dad were waiting on the street. We went to lunch together, and I was glad there was no fighting. They promised me they would be better at getting along. They told me they were sorry this had happened. From what my dad still tells me at least, it was rage bouts at the courtroom that resulted in the judge ordering me into foster care. People I tell my story to insist that something else was going on, that there must be more to the story.

***

M. A. Istvan Jr., poet and philosopher, teaches at Austin Community College and is the current editor of Safe Space Press. Visit pw.org/directory/writers/m_a_istvan_jr_phd

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The Life and Times of Ricky Powell https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/02/the-life-and-times-of-ricky-powell https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/02/the-life-and-times-of-ricky-powell#respond Sun, 14 Feb 2021 15:41:49 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11469

Beasties Charles St Shuffle

I was scrolling through Twitter after midnight a couple of weeks ago when I read that the photographer and New York personality Ricky Powell had died.

The news hit me because as kids we’d spent a lot of time together at the 14th Street Y in afterschool programs. Biddy Basketball and Sportsman’s Clinic, and the intensely competitive, self-contained universe of early adolescent athletic games was our connection. In recent years we resumed a virtual acquaintance, exchanging texts and messages a few times.  So I wouldn’t say we were friends. Still when someone you knew well in your childhood dies at age 59, you think about things.

In the hours that followed the initial report of Ricky’s death, tributes from hip-hop giants, youngblood New York enthusiasts, street photographers, and wannabe hipsters filled social media. Later in the week, lengthy obituaries and appreciations appeared in publications all over the world.

Ricky Powell 1987

Somehow, until a few years ago, I had been entirely unaware of Ricky’s Beastie Boys adventures, his role chronicling rap and hip hop’s early years, and his public access cable television show, “Rapping with the Rickster.”

My brother had kept up a friendship with Ricky a bit longer than I had, and when we talked about our memories and tried to reconcile them with Ricky’s later colorful public personality it was disorienting. “He talks entirely differently,” my brother said somewhat indignantly. Ricky’s middle-aged made-up street patois seemed to me a wonderful cross between Jimmy Cagney and W.C. Fields, a kind of theatrical street smarts, which is not to say it was inauthentic. In Ricky’s case his persona at some point became the person.  

There was also the matter of Ricky’s appearance. As a teenager and young man, he’d been almost unbearably good looking. The hearts of young women and men beat harder in his presence. Middle-aged Rickey was a paunchy guy, with ridiculous looking grey mutton-chop sideburns, who never went out without a baseball cap affixed to his head. We all get old, but for my brother and I, neither of us having seen Ricky for thirty years, his physical transformation was jarring.

It was remarkable to me that his obsessions in 2021, judging by his Instagram and Facebook, remained those of a 13-year-old New York boy born in 1961.

His pantheon of gods was made up of athletes, not the hip-hop superstars he so memorably photographed and befriended. I am not sure he even particularly cared for the music of the acts that he documented. His social media postings establish Ricky’s radio station of choice was Jazz 88, WGBO (Newark). He regarded the Village Vanguard as a neighborhood shrine.

Ricky’s heroes were the sports heroes of our early adolescence—Joe Namath, Pistol Pete Maravich, and, first and foremost, Walt “Clyde” Frazier. The early 1970s Knicks, unlike any other New York team, had a mythical resonance for any city boy who fancied himself a ballplayer. Living alone and untethered to family, Ricky’s eternal boyhood did not seem so strange to me. I have a cat named Clyde and had somehow convinced my wife to name our first-born son Clyde if we ever had a boy. Fortunately, we were blessed with daughters.

The role of sports was central to the sensibility and development of so many New York kids in the ’70s. The utopian and “cool” integrated Knicks teams helped kids attitudinally—and in Ricky’s case on a much deeper level—transcend some of the animosity, segregation, and polarization that was part of the city that decade. The level of open racial antagonism—even in a very liberal neighborhood like Greenwich Village—existed in ways that people a generation removed cannot really understand. One incident from those years that stands out in my memory happened in September 1976, when a very large group of West Village teenagers and young men went on a rampage in Washington Square Park, attacking Black and Hispanic people with pipes and baseball bats, killing a dark-skinned Dominican volleyball player and wounding thirteen others. Ricky never succumbed to the tribalism and territoriality that afflicted many other kids in his neighborhood during those years. I remember seeing him at West 4th Street hanging out with Black kids he went to high school with at Seward Park.

One reason, probably the main reason, we stopped hanging out was that Ricky was a West Village kid and I was a Lower East Side kid. The 14th Street Y was a crossroads for two adjacent neighborhoods that rarely connected. The schools and playgrounds where I lived were inhabited mostly by Puerto Rican kids. The West Village kids were overwhelmingly white. It was unthinkable that Ricky would have wandered all the way east to play ball on the P.S. 63 schoolyard on the block where I lived. And while the West Village streets were safer and gentler than Avenue A, as a fourteen–year-old I would have had some trepidation about showing up to play ball on Horatio Street. 

One of the great things about getting a little older for all of us was being able to walk and explore other neighborhoods, and there are some terrific photos Ricky took as a young adult documenting some of what was happening on the Lower East Side in the 1980s.

Ricky’s temperament is not mentioned in any of the published appreciations that I’ve read. Anger and exasperation drove him and were a part of his charisma. An enduring memory I have of Ricky as a boy is him pounding on a locker again and again for a very long time after losing a basketball game. Another is of him pacing back and forth in a fury outside the Y one evening. When my brother asked Ricky what he was doing, he told us that he was waiting to fight with a boy named Ivan who was a full foot taller than him.

I could sense that same anger in recent years when Ricky, in between feigning puffs on what he described as his “imaginary jazz cigarette,” would rail about the “New Jack Cornballs and rich-ass Hamptons bitches” bogarting (another word from the Powell lexicon) in on the West Village of his childhood. Whether or not his idyllic memories of the “chill” and “bohemian” Village of his childhood were real, I completely understood how he felt when he told me he wished the “rich-ass cornballs would go back to schmucksville.”

One last thing you should know about Ricky. He was good-hearted guy. When my father died four years ago, he messaged me out of the blue, and I have saved what he wrote me. “Sorry to hear, Jacob. I remember playing ball with you at Emanuel Y on East 14th St. in the early 70s. You were a good sportsman. I reckon your father had something to do with that. My thoughts are with you. Stay Up.”

***

Jacob Margolies is the Managing Editor of Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and a reporter for Japan’s largest newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

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A New York State of Mind https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/01/a-new-york-state-of-mind https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/01/a-new-york-state-of-mind#respond Sun, 31 Jan 2021 15:24:59 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11435

When you sit down on a weather-worn bench in New York—one that is dry and bone colored—it feels like you’ve stepped out of your body. You’ve left a building, a crowded café, stepped off of an accordion bus, or out of a bodega. It’s a pause where you take a cigarette break even though you don’t smoke. Never have. Yet, you’re smoking the cigarette of the person next to you. Raincoat. Blue tie. White collared shirt. As you inhale, you realize you no longer choke on the smell of a cigarette at first whiff and can endure the nicotine and underlying hint of black coffee that once clogged your throat and set fire to your eyes. Was it one month ago? A week? 

Warbling sounds fill the air. A hissing of old brakes. A whir of voices. A clattering of click, click, click. Building walls are the backdrop of a long city block. Brick. Metal. Glass. You sigh from exhaustion and time slips by unnoticed. When did shadows cross the wide street and past the bumper-to-bumper traffic? When did the sky run gray? You look halfway up and wonder why they hang the baskets of flowers so high on the lampposts. How the hell do they water them? The flowers are half dead. Out of the tumult passing before you—bodies, dogs, cars, taxis, buses, smoke, cell conversations—she catches your eye. Straight black hair. Drop waist dress. Red nails. You wonder if she feels like a whore. That’s what you feel like when your nails are the color of blood. That and something fierce. Then she, too, is gone. 

Your head falls back, your eyes find the world above, and you are in limbo. The New York sky is a puzzle, its edges cut sharp and square by the towering buildings. There’s barely an opening. The world stretches too high. You sit tight on the bench and swallow the saliva thickening in your throat. This city gets under your skin. You feel like you’re falling as the buildings go higher. Until you’re dizzy. Until raindrops burn your eyes. This isn’t rain, you think. It’s acrid. You want to spit New York out of your mouth. The city sidewalks are brimming with the bitter taste of strangers’ mouths—cigarettes, stale coffee, beer, and mint. The rain is washing it away. 

You like umbrellas. Yours was found beneath dingy basement steps in Jersey City. It’s decorated with burgundy flowers, and you imagine that it belonged to the previous owner of the house who is long dead. Umbrellas can tell you something about who people are. Their dress, their eyeliner, their umbrella, and their shoes are all clues. You follow the runoff of water from the umbrellas to the ground and from the wet cement into the drains. At this moment, you realize that you and everyone else steps around the city’s grates. Who wants to fall in—below—on a rainy day? Or maybe it’s because of the homeless people sleeping on them. Their bodies curled into the dense tendrils of smoke rising from the packed underbelly of the city. 

Because you are a dreamer, you can’t help but see that there’s poetry in the way the beggar shakes his cup. His wet, cardboard signs are screaming for a dollar or two. You reach in. But your empty pockets are empty. There’s poetry in that, too, you muse. There’s poetry everywhere. The shit stains on the cement tell you where someone stepped, shoes swooshing and gliding, a little to the right. Half moons, the color of mud. 

You walk down underground into a packed body of people. Where do their limbs begin? Where do yours end? You want to take a deep breath. A homeless man inside the train station on 14th Street is inspecting a roach between his forefinger and thumb, staring it down. Further in, you hear someone playing a violin. You think about how music can sound like a single lonely soul calling out. You wait for the train and hear it in the distance. A man swears that he’s going to jump just as the train begins to haul into the station. He ain’t got a thing to live for, he screams. He stands at the edge, his legs bent, his arms pushed back like he’s about to jump. You try to look away. The train is coming. Its metal-bullet face is pushing forward. Your heart beats faster. The sound thunders through your body. You hate the city. One hundred pairs of eyes try to look away. The man is sprinting. Legs prepared to leap. You want to open your mouth, and scream. He runs alongside the train, but he doesn’t jump. He just laughs. And laughs. And laughs. All the world is spinning and spinning. You want to push him into the train with you. You wanted to save him. 

You cram inside the car. The sound of someone being slapped is actually an umbrella dropping onto the speckled train floor. You look down. The train looks relatively clean but smells like the inside of a porta-john whose air vents are pumping shit. You hang on, leaving sweat-prints on the metal rail. 

There is a man in the subway car with a flat screen TV secured with dirty towels. It’s tucked between his legs. And there’s a woman whose hair is the most glorious red you’ve ever seen. The man’s foot keeps tapping to some beat in his ears. This is the season of shopping bags. Zara. Saks. Bloomingdale. Sephora. You watch the woman tug at the edges of a short, green skirt, hoping it’s fabric will pull longer than it can. You start to see everything all at once. The skirt. The man who wants to jump. The roach. The homeless people. The umbrellas. The baskets of plants. The city walls. Her red nails. The smell of cigarettes clinging to your skin and your wet hair. You see and feel and taste it all. And you realize that you’re making moons out of shit-stains on the sidewalk to keep yourself from drowning in a city that feels like it’s swallowing you whole and spitting you out.

***

Natasha Persaud is an Indo-Caribbean American immigrant writer who is working on her memoir The Dirt From the Yard, a retelling of her childhood growing up in tenements of Georgetown, Guyana.

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Meeting Ivan Kral at the Gee Whiz Diner https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/01/meeting-ivan-kral-at-the-gee-whiz-diner https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/01/meeting-ivan-kral-at-the-gee-whiz-diner#respond Sun, 24 Jan 2021 16:26:44 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11404

It’s a good night when shaking hands with Iggy Pop isn’t the most memorable part of it. Pop and the late photographer Robert Matheu had been at the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca, where they were signing Matheu’s 2009 book, The Stooges: The Authorized and Illustrated Story.

On 1973’s “Search and Destroy,” Pop refers to himself as a “street walking cheetah.” That’s not braggadocio. Despite being short in stature, Pop is intimidating. While he was tranquil, erudite, and polite at the bookstore, his eyes radiated the kind of intensity that could only belong to someone who wrote “Raw Power” and “Gimme Danger.” It’s not every evening you introduce yourself to somebody who helped create a genre of music. 

And it’s not every evening that someone who helped create a genre of music introduces himself or herself to you. On this particular evening, both of those things happened within a few hours of each other.

Following the book signing, my friend and I went across the street to the Gee Whiz Diner. While having dinner, we talked about music, which wasn’t uncommon. Over an hour into our conversation, however, something happened that definitely was. The middle-aged couple seated across from us, suddenly were standing at the edge of our table and staring at us with knowing grins. This could’ve been the beginning of a horror film. Instead, it was one of those occasions where living in New York City can feel as if there’s no difference between dream and reality.

“Hi, sorry for interrupting, but we overheard some of your conversation and were really impressed by how much you guys know about music.” As the woman said this, she and her husband smiled conspiratorially. When we thanked them, she pointed to the man with her and added, “This is Ivan Kral.” 

Turns out the couple were Ivan Kral, the second punk rock pioneer I’d meet that night, and his wife, the entrepreneur Cindy Hudson.

While thinking of a reply, I could feel my face contorting into an expression somewhere between shocked and beatific. There was only a finite amount of time to talk. How to proceed? As a member of the original Patti Smith Group, I knew that he’d co-written Smith’s 1979 song “Dancing Barefoot,” but in the heat of the moment, I wasn’t quite sure. With nerves, the first casualty is intelligence.

“You co-wrote ‘Dancing Barefoot,’ right?” It was a question phrased more like a statement, said in a slightly exaggerated, self-assured James Caan “New Yawk” voice, and my attempt to mask any doubt. When he nodded in affirmation, I responded in my normal voice, “That’s one of my all-time favorite songs.” Both Kral and Hudson’s faces lit up with genuine joy and even some relief. Hearing us talk about music for so long, it would’ve been embarrassing if we didn’t know who he was.

In the midst of the excitement, I completely forgot what specifically it was we had been discussing that had prompted their visit and felt a slight wave of self-consciousness. Kral seemed to sense my confusion. A native of what is now the Czech Republic, he said in his Eastern European accent, “You know, Gene was always like that.” That managed to be the gateway into the recent (10 minutes ago) past. My friend and I had been rhapsodizing about Warren Zevon’s 1976 self-titled album, Hall & Oates’ War Babies, and Kiss. The Gene Simmons reference Kral made was likely due to the awful impersonations of Simmons he’d presumably seen and heard us doing earlier that evening.

Kral had enlisted in the “Kiss Army” years before the term existed. One of their original champions, he was friends with the band when they started and attended their early shows at the Coventry Club in Sunnyside, Queens in 1973. He likely bonded with Simmons because they were both immigrants, the latter from Israel. Luger, Kral’s glam rock band at the time, would open for Kiss in August 1973 at the Hotel Diplomat on West 43rd Street. This was the fabled gig where Kiss met their future manager Bill Aucoin, and consequently went from outer borough oddities to kings of the nighttime world.

While I was talking with Kral, it was difficult not to think of his extraordinary past. His father, Dr. Karel Kral, was a reporter for the Czech news agency, C.T.K. In 1966, he had warned of the threat of his country being invaded by the Soviet Union, just two years before the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia. By then, the Krals were living in New York as refugees, while Dr. Kral worked as a translator at the United Nations. The timing for Ivan was perfect. The teenage Kral left an increasingly repressive society for a city approaching the grimy, glorious dawn of the ’70s.

Maintaining a stealth ubiquity throughout that period, he performed with teen idol Shaun Cassidy, an early version of Blondie, and Iggy Pop, among others, which explains why Kral and Hudson had been at the book signing. 

Kral never received the fanfare of some of his peers, but he was as vital a figure as anyone in the ’70s downtown rock scene. That’s in large part because of his role as composer/guitarist/bassist for the Patti Smith Group, where he spent most of the decade.

During his time with the band, he co-wrote classics like “Kimberly,” “Pissing in a River,” “Citizen Ship,” and “Ain’t It Strange.” The aforementioned “Dancing Barefoot” bridges the gap between mid-’60s Byrds and early ’80s goth/alternative, with its haunting guitar buzz refrain, sci-fi/new wave noir synths, and swirling 12-string guitar solo. Ethereal, ominous, and alluring, the song perfectly captures the nocturnal metropolitan ambience of late ’70s New York.

“Because the Night,” from 1978’s Easter, and written by Smith and Bruce Springsteen, is another song that significantly benefits from Kral’s presence. When Smith repeats “They can’t hurt you now” before the chorus, you believe her in part because of Kral’s raggedly victorious guitar solo, which embodies the song’s defiant and romantic spirit. 

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, when Kral wasn’t playing guitar, he spent a lot of time keeping a visual record of his time in New York. This started when he filmed Murray the K shows with a Super 8 camera in 1967. In 1974 and ’75, he documented the emerging New York punk scene, capturing what was going on at CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, and the Bottom Line. Kral managed to get Blondie, Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Patti Smith Group, Richard Hell and the Heartbreakers, and other newcomers on film, back when the general public hadn’t heard of them. 

Kral and filmmaker Amos Poe compiled all of those acts into a film called The Blank Generation, named after the Richard Hell and the Heartbreakers song that would later become an anthem in 1977 with Hell’s then-current band the Voidoids. Using silent 16mm cameras for the performances and behind-the-scenes footage, Kral and Poe edited the images with demo recordings of the different bands. The end result was avant-garde home movies that were essentially music videos before the term even existed. 

The Blank Generation premiered in New York City on April 22nd, 1976. The Ramones self-titled debut album, the abrasively poppy clarion call from Forest Hills heard round the world, would be released the following day. Once again, timing was in Kral’s favor.

Decades later, the timing of our serendipitous meeting was in both of our favors. I’d seen The Blank Generation for the first time a few weeks before at the Museum of Modern Art. I told Kral this and how much I loved it. Now it was time for him to look shocked. What were the chances this complete stranger he went up to would’ve just seen his influential, but relatively obscure film? When he asked what the reception was like, I flashed back to the image of a succession of annoyed elderly people leaving the theatre one by one, presumably repelled by the odd, brusque music, and experimental nature of the movie. With this in mind, I responded that it had been a good turnout.

While we said our goodbyes, Kral and Hudson told us about Kral’s YouTube channel, the “IvanKralVault,” which features clips from the massive amount of footage he accumulated over the decades. This includes silent footage of Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels at the RKO Theater in Manhattan in 1967, where a portrait of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson flashed on the giant screen behind them. The channel makes for a perfect escape, especially now with life in quarantine.

The day following our encounter, I looked up Kral online and was reminded that in 1982 he did the score, with keyboardist Bruce Brody, for Diner, one of the great films of the 1980s. I’d known of Kral’s involvement, but had completely forgotten about it. The previous night started to make a little more sense to me. It’s possible he saw my friend and I as the 21st century equivalents of the music and football obsessed characters from the movie.

On Super Bowl Sunday 2020, one of the most sacrosanct modern rituals in America, Ivan Kral passed away. In his final years, he saw his adopted country gradually moving toward autocracy. Unlike many of us, it’s doubtful he ever took democracy for granted. The silver lining is Kral never got to witness his beloved New York City become a mass grave site due to the coronavirus.

He also never got to see some of his fellow Michiganders (Kral ended up in Ann Arbor) putting lives at risk to protest the necessary measures keeping them alive. Mimicking the reckless and inconsiderate attitude of their leader, they whined about not being able to get their hair dyed as others quietly faded away, suffering lonely deaths that could’ve been prevented. For one last time, Kral was in the good graces of perfect timing.

His life was a great American tale that ranged from owning a video store in New Brunswick, New Jersey during the 1980s to in 2011 composing and performing a song at the memorial for Vaclav Havel, the playwright and dissident who later became the first President of the Czech Republic.  

Kral lived a New York story where dream and reality are indistinguishable. He left a country that banned rock and roll and then proceeded to become a crucial figure in that music’s evolution. 

Ain’t it strange?

***

Matt Leinwohl is a writer based in New York, where he is currently working on his first book. You can find his writing on his blog seemyway.com

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The Man in Apartment 6 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/01/the-man-apartment https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/01/the-man-apartment#comments Sun, 10 Jan 2021 15:10:40 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11378

Apartment 6 is on the third floor, so I guess that’s why I don’t notice the odor. But I have been wondering why suddenly my super has put lavender scented Air Wick stick-ups all over the hallway walls. I also notice urinal cakes have been stuck under the staircase near my apartment door on the first floor. Their harsh disinfectant mixed with the cheap chemical lavender fragrance makes for a strange scent. 

My five-story East Village building has been host to other strange smells during the 14 years I’ve lived here. A month after I moved in, I was convinced something had died in our building. Other tenants thought so as well. The stench would hit me the moment I walked in the front door of my East 6th Street building. A bunch of us called the landlord. He told us it was from the Indian restaurant below. They had pulled up their wall-to-wall carpeting, and the smell was from the particles of food that had been trapped underneath for years. I found this hard to believe, but eventually the smell was replaced by the scent of curry, beer, and cigarette smoke.

Now I’m greeted in the hallway by distressed neighbors asking me, “Can you smell it?”

“Yeah, I can smell the urinal cakes and those stick-up thingies,” I reply. “They stink!”

They shake their heads and whisper, “No … it smells like someone’s dead.”

“Oh, no,” I say. “It’s just this weird stuff the super put in the hallways.” I think they’re imagining it. But a few more residents of my building stop me and say the same thing. They’re agitated. I wonder how could it be that where we go about our daily lives—sleeping, watching TV, or cooking our meals — that possibly there lies a body. I’ve always thought it’s an urban myth about people dying in their apartment, only to be discovered later on, half-eaten by their hungry cat. 

But this is New York City. We live on top of each other. I can overhear my neighbors sneeze, argue, have sex, and use the shower. They do all this, and I act like I can’t hear any of it in the hopes they do the same for me. I also can tell when people cook onions and boil cabbage or smoke pot. It’s part of living with so many others, all of us pretending the doors, ceilings, and walls give us privacy from our neighbor’s smells and sounds. But a person dying in their apartment—that’s a big deal.

Most of my neighbors claiming there’s a weird smell coming from Apartment 6 have never even met the person who lives there. I’m one of the few tenants who actually know the man. He’s an older gentleman named Mark who has apparently lived here for years. I don’t know his last name. He’s solitary, quiet, and keeps strange hours. The super tells me that Mark’s paranoid and wouldn’t hand over a spare key for emergencies. 

I occasionally see Mark sitting on our stoop late at night, sometimes well past midnight, when I return home from a waitressing shift. Spotting him at this hour has allowed me to gather just a tiny bit of information about him, besides his first name. He mentions he’s from Haiti, which accounts for his slight French accent. He tells me he’s rarely around because he has “business” that takes him out to Queens. Mark looks very fit and dresses nicely in khakis, dress shirts, and sometimes a blazer. His wrinkle-free skin is the color of cafe-au-lait, and his hair and mustache are salt and pepper. I figure he’s probably in his early sixties. He has a debonair and mysterious manner that reminds of me of the actor Ricardo Montalban. I’m usually pretty tired getting home late, so I never hang out too long on the stoop to find out more about the man who lives two stories above me.

A few more days pass, and I run into the same frantic neighbors who live on the upper floors. They claim the smell is getting worse, that not only is it in the hallways, but now it’s in their apartments as well. I don’t bother to go upstairs to check; it’s all I can do to hold my nose by the first floor mailboxes. The whiff of urinal cakes mixing with the smell of fake lavender is nauseating. I still think they are confusing the odor coming from Apartment 6 with our super’s bizarre attempt to freshen the air in our hallways, so I remove the urinal cakes from under the staircase and throw them out. I’ve had enough of the stink of a men’s restroom near my apartment door.

A man who lives directly above Apartment 6 is absolutely convinced the smell is coming from Mark’s apartment. He claims he hasn’t seen him in a while. But then we both agree we can go months without seeing Mark. The upstairs neighbor is being driven crazy by the odor and he asks me, “Don’t you smell it?”

“No, really, I don’t.”

Then a week later, walking out of my apartment, it hits me. There is a sickening, sweet stench of decay in the hallway. It almost makes me miss the aroma of the urinal cakes under the staircase.

I bump into the upstairs neighbor and inform him that I can finally smell it. He tells me he can’t take it anymore and calls the landlord’s office. They tell him they have no emergency contact for Mark and no spare key. The landlord suggests he call the police.

Later that same day the upstairs neighbor does call 911. When the police arrive, they can smell something too, but aren’t sure what it is. They bang on Mark’s door. There is no answer. The upstairs neighbor crawls down the back fire escape and peers in. There is so much junk piled up against the windows he can’t see in, but when he cracks a window open the smell hits him. The officers inform him there’s nothing they can do because they can’t just barge into an apartment unless it’s an emergency. The police suggest he call the landlord.

Several more days go by and the stench becomes overwhelming. I can even detect it inside my apartment now. The upstairs neighbor has had enough. He calls 911 again. He tells me that this time when the cops show up they get a whiff and they agree, “Oh yeah, that’s a body.”

The upstairs neighbor tells me he pleads with the cops to do something. They inform him they’ll come back later with a battering ram. The upstairs neighbor begs them to do something NOW! The cops suggest that he can force open the door himself, but they cannot do this without a battering ram. So with the cops’ consent, the upstairs neighbor kicks open the door to Apartment 6.

The upstairs neighbor tells me, “I could barely get the door open because Mark was right up against it … lying there naked. He looked like he was dead for awhile.”

Mark’s body is finally removed the same day it is discovered, but the smell lingers for almost a week.

The death of the man few people knew is the talk of the building for some time. The super tells me Mark was actually 75 years old. The super also lets me know that, according to the police, Mark appears to have died of natural causes.

Not too long after, the Air Wick Stick-Ups lose their artificial lavender scent. But they remain affixed to the walls for several more months. I wonder about the people who had to remove Mark’s body, and those who had to clean up his apartment. I wonder if he had family or friends mourn him. I feel awful about him dying alone. His body lying there for over two weeks while all of us complained about how horrible he smelled, as if he could do anything about this.

Time goes by and a new person moves into Apartment 6. I wonder if I should tell the new tenant what happened before he moved in. Then I figure, at some point someone has probably died in most NYC apartments. I think what bothers me most is not the dying so much as a person’s body left undiscovered for weeks and then greeted with horror when it was finally found.

I feel a small jolt when occasionally above our mailboxes I see a piece of junk mail or a utility bill addressed to Mark. It’s like being visited by a ghost. It’ll sit there for several days, much as his body did, until someone finally scrawls, “Deceased” across it. 

I wonder if Verizon will still send bills to me after I’ve gone to meet my maker and am no longer making phone calls. Will pizza and dry cleaner coupons addressed to me arrive long after I’m deceased? Will people who still live here shudder when they see my name on a jury summons, knowing I’ve been dead for two years?

The circumstances of Mark’s death horrify me. The indignity of it reminds me to plead with my friends, “If you don’t hear from me for a few days, please come and check to see if I’m still alive.” I certainly don’t want the very last thing I am on this earth is to be a bad smell that everyone complains about. Even in death I do not want to offend.

***

Coree Spencer arrived in New York on February 4, 1989 from Athens, Georgia. 10 minutes after getting off the bus from Newark Airport, she was robbed of her wallet while trying to get through the turnstile at the Cortlandt Street subway station. She has spent her thirty-two years in the city working in the restaurant and catering industry.

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This is Jeopardy: Remembering Art and Alex https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2020/12/jeopardy-remembering-alex https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2020/12/jeopardy-remembering-alex#comments Sun, 20 Dec 2020 15:17:48 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11342

Alex Trebek, who hosted Jeopardy for thirty-seven seasons, died on November 8th. My connection to him and the show was through Art Fleming, a prior host of the show, who got Alex the gig.

Let me explain. As a child, I was quite the nerd. I could recite the U.S. presidents forward and backward at age eight, along with the names of their wives. State capitals were no challenge. Back in the days of Art Fleming, who hosted Jeopardy on NBC from 1964 until 1975, it was not that hard to get on the show. 

It was 1973. I had recently returned from eight months of travelling abroad. I had hitchhiked around Europe, slept in youth hostels, stayed on the southern coast of Crete for a month in a house without running water, and spent the winter picking fruit on a kibbutz. I suppose most would have called me a hippie at the time. 

When I got back to New York City, I moved into a rather shabby apartment in Park Slope, a Brooklyn neighborhood that was slowly gentrifying. My two roommates, both male, smoked way too much marijuana. I was working as a secretary in a large pharmaceutical company, drearily typing away, and planning on applying to law school. 

One day I came home from work and found my roommates in an excited state. They were going to try out for Jeopardy. Back then, I would guess that the ratio of male to female contestants was about seven to one. This made the challenge of getting on the show especially enticing to me. I had been raised as a feminist and if the guys were doing it, I would too. I had delivered mail the summer I was sixteen, drove a yellow cab out of a garage in the Bronx when I was nineteen, and sporadically drove an ice cream truck during college. There was no way that my roommates were going to 30 Rock without me. All I needed was a subway token.

We got on the F train the next day, and it took us right into the basement of Rockefeller Plaza. Back then there were no security guards. We just took the elevator right up. The first thing the Jeopardy staff had us do was take a written test. I assume the three of us all did well enough, because we were then herded into the oral exam room. From the first question asked, I could tell my roommates were going nowhere. Years of substantial dope-smoking had reduced their elocution (or lack thereof) to mumbles that were occasionally punctuated by “yeah, man.” And neither of them was even trying to make eye contact. 

Taking my clue from observing their floundering, I sang out my answers and made sure to keep the tester in an eye lock while I kept smiling. She handed me over to Art Fleming. He was tall, handsome in a WASPy way, and spoke in stentorian tones. As we chatted, it turned out that he had grown up in the same crummy Bronx neighborhood that I did. And he had attended James Monroe High School, just like my father. I could tell that Art got a kick out of that. And I simply could not feel intimidated by someone who graduated from Monroe, just around the corner from my childhood home. The school had deteriorated by then into a place where a short girl with thick glasses could not survive. I had been privileged enough to attend the prestigious Bronx High School of Science where short girls with thick glasses thrived. 

The Jeopardy staff told me to come back the next day and bring three different outfits since they would be filming three segments. What to wear? I was your typical counterculture twenty-one-year old in 1973—long hair, overalls, earth shoes, etc. But I was also a secretary in a conventional corporate office with a strict dress code. When I had started working there, women were not allowed to wear pants. They modified the dress code during my tenure to allow pantsuits, so long as the jacket was cut from the same fabric as the pants. I had three pantsuits, all made of polyester for easy machine washing. One of them was plaid and the color of dried blood. 

Would Art Fleming have suggested that I come back the next day if we hadn’t had the Bronx, not to mention James Monroe High School, in common? Who knows? I do know that I was relaxed speaking to him. Looking back, perhaps I was so steeped in early seventies hippiedom that I viewed this experience as a big goof. 

I came back the next day toting my polyester pantsuits in a shopping bag. Everyone on the staff was super-friendly, and I don’t remember being at all nervous. Don Pardo, who had a seventy-year run at NBC, was the announcer. And he spoke in tones even more stentorian than Art Fleming. 

I can’t recall any of the questions I got right; only some of the ones I got wrong. Two of them were Final Jeopardy answers (technically in the form of a question). I remember both. The clue on the second day was as follows: Modern government buildings in its capital are based on ancient Persian architecture. This was years before the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, and hardly any Americans, including me, had ever even heard of Tehran. I knew that Brazil had a relatively new capital, so I figured Brasilia was a good guess. None of us got the right answer, but by that time I was a two-day champ. 

I went down on the final question the next day. The category was Republicans. I don’t remember the clue, but I do remember that I guessed Dwight Eisenhower when I should have guessed Barry Goldwater. The guy in the middle got it right and had bet a lot on it. He was the new champion. Off camera, he turned to me and gloated. “I’m a Goldwater Republican,” he said. “Really?” I answered. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a Republican before.”

Oh, well. I was far from crushed. I had spent the day filming three episodes and hauling in about $1600, which exceeded my expenditures for eight months abroad, including four airplane flights. I was euphoric and ready to get out of there.  Besides, I had run out of pantsuits.

In addition to the cash, I won “valuable prizes”—a waffle iron, a polyester blanket, and Z-brick to put on my wall. I turned down the Z-brick, explaining that as a renter, I did not own a wall. I did, however, have to pay taxes on the useless items I took home.

Back in the pre-VCR days, there were no tapes or CDs of Jeopardy episodes. In order to see myself on the show, which aired weeks later, I went to E.J. Korvettes on 39th Street and ascended to the eighth floor where the television department was located. Fortunately, Jeopardy aired at noon, which coincided with my lunch hour. The polyester pantsuits didn’t look that great, and my glasses were a bit askew. But I thought the whole thing was a bit ridiculous to begin with.

By the following year, I was in law school. Jeopardy contacted me and asked me to come back for something new that they were trying out—a nighttime Tournament of Champions. I had to schlep in from Boston for the event and don’t remember whom I played against or who won. I do remember that I lost and that Art Fleming wore a ludicrous silver lamé tuxedo jacket. He asked me, on camera, what I had done with my winnings from the previous year. “I lived,” I said. “Okay,” he said.

Years later, when Google entered our lives, I was able to find out more about Art. He was born in 1924, which meant he was pushing fifty when I met him. He looked much younger and was what we would call a hunk back then. His real name was Arthur Fleming Fazzin. His parents had emigrated from Austria to the Bronx and were a popular dance team. Art attended Colgate and Cornell, starring on both football teams, and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II as the pilot of a patrol bomber. He had a postwar career as a radio announcer and was the first person to deliver the slogan, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”  He was spotted by the creator of Jeopardy, Merv Griffin, in a TWA television ad. Art was skeptical about auditioning for the role of a host for a quiz show, but his agent encouraged him to “act like a game show host” at his audition and he was hired. 

The show was on hiatus from 1975 until 1983, when Merv began developing a revival of Jeopardy. Art was offered the chance to reprise his role as host in Los Angeles, but declined. He explained that he was partial to his native New York and felt that the Hollywood setting made the show dumber and less realistic. As a result, Alex Trebek took the position.  

Art died of pancreatic cancer in 1995 at the age of seventy. Alex died of pancreatic cancer at the age of eighty. I had no idea Art and Alex had been friends, and that Art had recommended Alex as the new host. Somehow that warms my heart and makes me feel better about…well, about everything.                   

R.I.P. Art and Alex.

***

Marissa Piesman recently retired after practicing law for forty years. She is also the author of The Yuppie Handbook and the Nina Fischman mystery series.

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