Mr. Beller's Neighborhood https://mrbellersneighborhood.com New York City Stories Since 2000 Sat, 19 Jun 2021 21:13:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.2 Mel Allen, Dads and Baseball https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/06/mel-allen-dads-and-baseball https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/06/mel-allen-dads-and-baseball#respond Sat, 19 Jun 2021 21:11:45 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=12084
My son (Sam) with me at CitiField in 2007.

My ear remembers that voice, even as my hearing has grown dim.

Mel Allen died 25 years ago, and time keeps on marching to the cadence of going, going, gone. But this isn’t meant to be morose.

Mel passed away on a Father’s Day. Here we are again on that commemorative third Sunday in June about to round first and head for summer. 

I look back on listening to him in youthful joy and celebration—my proof that time travel is real…

My dad takes his son to Yankee Stadium nearly 70 years ago. The spectacle of  the Stadium and the cheering crowd stir my senses: the emerald carpet; taste of a hot dog and smell of cigars; peanuts in fist-sized brown bags; and the security of being with my father in this Land of Oz.  

I learn to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner. Inexplicably, I feel excitement in the stands each time Number 5 comes to bat…

Soon I begin to listen to Mel Allen broadcast Yankee games on radio and watch them on a 10″ Admiral television set. In becoming passionate about baseball, I realize how much his descriptions and enthusiasm add to my knowledge and pleasure. He teaches insider stuff “for those keeping score at home.” I follow the team to hear his Alabama drawl and his call as much as for the games themselves.

One day I ask if there are any Jewish players on the Yanks. Dad says no, but Sid Gordon and Cal Abrams play for the Giants and Dodgers. Then he tells me the Yankee announcer is Jewish. It’s astounding. Who knew Jews came from the South?

With school out, I go to several games each year. A 45-minute bus ride down the Grand Concourse gets me there. Next, I’m on the ticket line, through the turnstile, watching players warm up. There’s my favorite, Hank Bauer, with Yogi and Mickey.

One day, right after a game, I see a cluster of fans around a tall man wearing a fedora. I ask, “Mr. Allen, would you autograph my scorecard?” You oblige and enjoy talking and answering questions. I want you to marry my beautiful cousin Beverly.

Now, it’s Old Timer’s Day. Fathers and sons pack the Stadium. You’re doing play-by-play over the PA system. DiMaggio is up once more. But the pitcher isn’t giving him anything to hit. The count reaches Ball 3. The next pitch is clearly outside. You again say, “Ball 3.” And another. “Ball 3!”  The crowd is howling. The pitcher finally puts the ball over and Joe D belts one. We go nuts.

The World Series is special. Your voice heralds the games nationally: “The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports is on the air.”  Hearts quicken.  Yanks vs Dodgers. All games are in the daytime. Everyone is riveted.

As kids in class until 3 o’clock we try to find out what’s happening. McDougal hit a homer; Gilliam too. Turns out Miss Farrell is a Yankee fan. School’s out by the 7th inning. Hustle home, turn on the TV and catch the ending.  

In ’55 the Dodgers finally do it. In ’56, I see the last three outs of Larsen’s perfect game…

My dad took me to see Willie at the Polo Grounds. He was a Giants fan who took wins and losses in stride. It sent a message to me about what really matters that I didn’t absorb until later.  

The Dodgers and Giants leave town in 1958. But the Bronx Bombers remain. I don’t fully grasp what’s going on but know something isn’t right. 

I must confess to not appreciating the Dodgers when I was a kid or the love of their fans. Nor did I understand their game-changing social impact. And I regret never taking the subway to see the Duke or feel the heartbeat of Ebbets Field.

Hank Bauer’s trade in 1959 comes as a shock. Still, Mel’s a constant, making every home run exciting.   

In 1960, the Yanks push Casey out. They say he’s too old. But the Mets arrive in 1962, filling New York’s National League void and he becomes their manager.

Suddenly, it’s 1964. JFK has come and gone. And the Yankees fire Mel—no reason given. Some unnamed executive decided it’s time for a change. This betrayal hurts and clinches my growing distrust of the establishment.  I refuse to return to the Stadium. Goodbye Yankees… 

Seasons pass. In 1978, I’m delighted to hear you’ve been honored by the Hall of Fame, a first-time award for broadcasters.  Just as Red Barber became your press booth partner with the Yankees after a storied career with the Dodgers, he joins you as a co-recipient of this tribute to two guys who had contrasting styles but were both true craftsmen.

Mel Allen at the microphone

Then, one Sunday, I’m home with my daughter, Jenny, and there’s that voice again.  “It’s time for This Week In Baseball.”  Instantly, I’m back nearly 30 years in front of a postage stamp TV.  I try telling my five-year old just what this means. “When I was a little boy…” 

A few years later, I re-enact the moment with my son. I’m sure he’s not following the week’s highlights, but as we watch, I catch Sam trying out one of your sweet, infectious inflections. “Hello there, everybody.” How about that!

My children and your show draw me back to baseball, but I must digress here, Mel. The game has taken many blows over the past 25 years.  

Getting to and seeing games in person has become a hassle—the traffic, parking and ticket prices; shelling out to buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack (and hot dogs and watery beer). Fans must weigh the charm versus cost of being there, when they can follow games on their devices.

Astronomical scoreboards have become the deus ex machina that defeats all the disruptions that make games a grind: waiting for batters to adjust their gloves; pitchers taking half a minute to shake off catchers; and streams of relief specialists slow-walking to the mound from the bull pen. These mammoth, high-amp entertainment centers tell spectators when to cheer and join in sing alongs, quizzes and silly contests between innings. 

Once teams were an extended family; today’s players are transients. Stars spend days on swollen disabled lists, pitch counts rule, and complete games are extinct. To fill the hours, broadcasts are glutted with commercials while announcers spout useless statistics.

It’s amazing, Mel. Baseball’s barons, players and their agents, greedy merchants and memorabilia hustlers can’t kill the game.  Having survived the steroid era, and flawed as it has become, it survives and is helping bring us out of the pandemic.

In the last 25 years, some things would’ve made him happy: The Yanks under Joe Torre winning four series rings; recognition of great Negro League players; and our national pastime’s inclusion of players from different countries. And Mel would have loved dads introducing young boys and girls to the game.

One July 4th, I’m watching the local evening news and get to hear a replay clip from ESPN Sports Channel. It’s the final out of this holiday game—a strike out of Wade Boggs. Mel’s voice once again rises to the climax: “A no-hitter for Dave Righetti!”  It’s 1983. Mel’s gone from radio to TV to cable. Times had changed, but in this instant, it stood still.

There are the undying echoes of his catch phrases in my head.  Who can forget “Ballentine blasts” or “White Owl wallops”—dream tie-ins—identifying his sponsors with every Yankee home run.  

And how this septuagenarian relished the way Mel filled rain delays with Yankee lore, storytelling about Ruth, Gehrig, Joltin’ Joe woven into tales of Satchel Paige, Ted Williams and Bob Feller.

Or his promotion of Ladies’ Day, when “Mothers and daughters, each for a quarter” were invited to afternoon games on weekdays. Who’s to say this inducement didn’t lower a barrier and turn women into lifelong fans?

Common folks and legends came to honor him at his funeral: Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto (whom he dubbed “the Scooter”), Yogi, Whitey Ford and George Steinbrenner were there at Temple Beth-El in Stamford. A few months later there was a tribute to him at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. 

Bob Costas had it right when he described Mel Allen as the eternal Voice of the Yankees. Yes, a timeless, resounding voice of love for the fans and the game. A special gift on Father’s Day.

***

Fred Smith grew up in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx and was an ardent Yankee fan from 1950-1964. His current association with sports is as a member of the New York Jets stats crew where he has kept records for 40 years.

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The Terrycloth Bathrobe https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/06/the-terrycloth-bathrobe https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/06/the-terrycloth-bathrobe#comments Sun, 13 Jun 2021 14:47:00 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=12065

The late afternoon, graying quickly, was sweet with surprising warmth. Days such as this wouldn’t come again for at least a month. A reward, it seemed, for surviving another dank and joyless February in New York City. 

My birthday was in March, and even at my age, I looked forward to the day with a childlike sense of hope, as though anything were possible. I had learned, though, to plan my own celebrations.

Benjamin and I were both skipping along as we came to our building door. I was tired, but giddy, too, eased by the velvety breeze that ruffled the air. Benjamin jumped from crack to crack in the sidewalk, so I left the front door ajar for him, and stepped inside to check the mailbox. A large package was propped on the radiator that was still steaming and hissing, despite the mild spell. The address on the brown paper wrapping was blurred a bit, having dampened and then dried, but I could see my name. “Hey, Benj, look, a package,” I called out the door. My curly-haired boy rushed inside, flushed and breathless. “Is it for me?” he asked, barely pausing his headlong rush up the stairs when I said, “No, honey, it’s for me.”

What a funny kid. It just didn’t matter to him—he didn’t have that need, that want, I had, that I’d always had. I didn’t even know what it was I wanted, but I knew I didn’t have it. He never wanted anything, the silly boy.

We got upstairs and I set the package aside, and moved through the motions of coming home, settling in for the evening, sipping from my now cold morning cup of coffee, and planning for dinner. Benjamin was chattering away in his room as he unpacked his backpack, sharing his day with Teddy and Ike and the other stuffed animals.

Soon, I had a pot of soup simmering away and bread warming in the oven. I picked up the brown-papered box and ran my fingernail against the clear plastic tape tucked around the side. I loosened the other side and pulled the wrapping off. The large white box had the name of a store scrawled in gold lettering across the lid, followed by the words, Beverly Hills, California. Wow, I thought, as I opened it. Who do I know in California?

Folds of crisp white tissue hid the contents of the box, but I did not hesitate long before lifting the thin paper to see what lay beneath. The terrycloth was like none I’d touched before, thick and soft, the palest pink. I pulled the robe out of the box and held it against myself. It was full and long, going all the way down to my ankles, but also graceful and feminine, not shapeless and bulky like other terrycloth bathrobes I’d seen. A square ivory envelope fluttered to the floor; the letter B was embossed in old-fashioned script just above the sealed flap.

The pale creamy card inside said: “Susie, I wish I could be with you on this special day! Love, Mama.”

I had gone through a phase when I was gangly and tongue-tied, when I wanted to be a graceful Sue not a Susan, and for a time people had called me that. In small-town Massachusetts, they like to shorten girls’ names; everyone was Deb, or Pat, or Sue, or Jen. There was another girl in junior high glee club whose name was Susan, but she was called Su-su, and people said she did things with boys. I was thrilled with the knowledge, but could not imagine myself as Su-su. And no one, ever, had called me Susie. What a fun, carefree name, for someone not at all like me.

I don’t know what I called my mother. All the words I might have used stick together in my throat. How could they spill out now? I probably called her Mom, or Mother. Something like that. But not Mama. That was a name for a mother who held you in her arms, who smelled of yeast and sugar and whose soft hands dried your tears, whose kind face stood between you and the world.

Benjamin asked me about the package, “Is that a present from Grandma?” “I guess so,” I said, “Isn’t it beautiful?” He asked, “Is it your birthday, Mummy?” No, I said, not for three more weeks, a long time away still. But he was hungry, and the soup was steaming in his bowl, and his eyes were full of cheese and bread and his thoughts did not linger on my surprising good fortune.

After supper, I put our dishes in the sink and picked up the paper wrapping from the package. I looked at it more carefully now and saw what I had quickly overlooked before. The name was like mine, but the last two letters were different. It read: Susan Landau. The address was very close. She lived at 7 Bleecker Street. I lived at 1 Bleecker.

As though the answer were being spelled out for me by a spiritualist with a Ouija board, the pieces slid together. The swirling B on the delicate envelope was from her mother, Barbara Bain. She had played the elegant Cinnamon on the TV show “Mission: Impossible,” opposite Martin Landau, Susie’s father. I remembered reading the gossipy note in the New York Post: Their daughter had come to the Big Apple to study film at NYU.

I hung the pink robe in the bathroom. Each morning, I slipped into it after I took my bath. How could a fabric feel so fine, like a caress, like a whisper of spring? The man from UPS came to our apartment door one night while we were having supper, and asked me if I had seen a package that he’d left in the stairwell of my building. I assured him I’d seen no packages, and he and I shook our heads in rueful agreement when he said what a bad neighborhood this was, so many junkies now on every corner.

I kept the bathrobe for years and years, wrapping myself in Mama’s love, until the terrycloth wore thin as gauze. I thought Benjamin had forgotten all about the gift, but one evening when he was much older, he teased me “Hey Mums, isn’t that the bathrobe you stole?”

***

Susan T. Landry is a writer and an editor. For life-blood money, she is a medical manuscript editor, editing articles for medical journals; and for pleasure and less money, she is also an editor of other writers’ stories. She founded and managed an online literary journal about memoir, called “Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie,” which is no longer publishing; Susan previously edited the print journal, “Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir.” She lived in NYC for many years, and on the Bowery from 1978 to 1991. Susan now lives in Maine.

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Yorkville 1960s–A Neighborhood in Transition https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/06/yorkville-1960s-a-neighborhood-in-transition https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/06/yorkville-1960s-a-neighborhood-in-transition#comments Sun, 06 Jun 2021 13:19:22 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=12022

Early 1960s, Yorkville. My block, 81st street between 1st and York avenues. 

During my early years, I witnessed a predominantly working-class immigrant neighborhood of Irish, Germans, and Hungarians being replaced by new wealthier residents.

The transition started with the construction of high-rise apartment buildings on the avenues. These characterless buildings were replacing the five-story walk-ups and their mom and pop stores, including the all-important luncheonette. 

The new high-rises rose up towards the sky, blocking all but the mid-day sun from the walk-ups. Sunlight now would only be for the wealthy. The high-rise was a modern day medieval castle with the drawbridge being replaced by the doorman. No one entered without approval.

Although high-rises were going up on the avenues, the side streets remained the domain of the railroad apartment dwellers.

These older buildings, many of which went up around the turn of the 20th century, were an improvement to the airless cramped tenements of lower Manhattan. The railroad apartments layout ran the length of the building. Living room in the front faced the street, followed by narrow bedrooms, which were divided and had windows in them for airflow, but also no doors, and no privacy. The kitchen was often in the rear of the apartment, facing the back of the building on the opposite street. The area between the rears of two buildings was a jumble of laundry lines. The kitchen, the center of life in these apartments, also housed a bathtub next to the kitchen sink. When not in use, the tub would be covered with a white enameled top. A big upgrade in the railroad from the older tenements was that there was a toilet in each apartment. There was no bathroom sink, but it was far better than the shared toilet in the hall of the tenement. The smell of decades of cooking permeated the walls of the building, never to dissipate, but only added on to with the cooking of the next meals. This apartment was the home of my early childhood.

Although changes to the neighborhood started with the coming of the high-rise, it would take some years for the transition to be complete. The remaining European immigrants and their children and, in some cases, grandchildren, held out like a defeated army that wouldn’t surrender until the last man was killed.

In my early childhood my block was still as it was when my grandparents moved there in 1918. The men went off to their blue-collar jobs in the morning. The women, clad in housecoats, would enjoy a cup of tea in the designated kitchen of a neighbor, and pass on the latest gossip. You would hear the clanking of the glass bottles as the milkman left his delivery in front of apartment doors.

Yorkville Kids: The author, in hat and suspenders, with friends and siblings on  81st Street  between 1st and York avenues, about 1963 -64.

In the summer, all life shifted out to the street to escape the heat of the apartments. There was no air conditioning in most buildings. The kids played the typical New York City games: Johnny on the pony, tag, red-rover, flipping baseball cards, hit off the point, and my favorite, ring-a-levio. When the mothers finished with their tea, still dressed in housecoats, they headed for the stoop. These woman were the referees of the neighborhood, ready to call a foul on any kid’s infraction. In their presence, we would have to refrain from foul language; very hard to do when you lost a Mickey Mantle card while flipping. 

A mother leans out a third floor window and calls to her son.

“JIMMY”
“YEAH MA”
“GO DOWN TO JOHN’S. GET A LOAF OF BREAD AND POUND OF BUTTER.”
“MA. I’M FLIPPIN CARDS HERE, I’LL GO LATER.”
“NOW! I’LL THROW THE MONEY DOWN.”
“OK”
“WHAT?”
“OOOO KAY”


Jimmy’s mom would throw the money down wrapped in paper with a rubber band around it.

“I WANT MY CHANGE TOO!”

The old men of the block would converge in front of their stoop after work. Like alpha males of the animal kingdom, these were the kings of the block, unless their wives were around! They would always stand. Sitting was a sign of weakness. The majority of this crew was immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Hungary, and of course, there was our neighbor Mr. Farina from Italy. These men were not the friendliest. They had an attitude shaped by the harsh lives in their former countries.

Now and then the old men would take a stroll down the block. Shoulder to shoulder, they would declare the sidewalk theirs. No room to pass, or continue a game of tag, all the kids would part like the Red Sea to let them through. Any resistance to giving way might prompt a kick on the shin.

As the day wore on, battle scars of the kid’s games would become noticeable. The tee shirt that was white in the morning turned dingy gray, the four inch rolled up cuffs of dungarees unrolled and wrapped around sneakers. Oh, and the sneakers. A day wouldn’t go by without some kid searching for a discarded popsicle stick to remove the dog shit off the bottom of a sneaker; the price you paid for a game of tag in the street.

The day of play would come to an end with a shout out the window, “Dinner!” In the house we’d wash up at the kitchen sink, remember no sink in the bathroom.

Dinner on the table, you wanted to eat fast and get back outside because of that special treat that arrived every evening. Dinner finished, dads snoozed on the couch, clean up after dinner, and the kids pestered their mom for some money.

Out on the stoop in the evening, you’d sit with your friends and discuss the plays of the day. The homerun in stick-ball that went all the way to York Avenue, the big winner in pitching pennies bragging about his haul, winning a Mickey Mantle rookie card in flipping, losing a Mickey Mantle rookie card in flipping, and so on.

The talk would come to an abrupt end as Mr. Softee turned onto the block. Like the Pied Piper, Mr. Softee jingle summoned the children of the neighborhood. Like moths to a flame, all flocked toward the bright white florescent light of the truck’s interior. I’d get a large vanilla cone with chocolate sprinkles. The ice cream starting to melt before I got across the street didn’t matter. Every kid on the block always had sticky hands; it helped when catching a Spaldeen.

That was a typical day on my block. At times we would change it up with a trip to John Jay or Carl Schurz parks. Trips to these parks and other blocks would become more frequent as the transition of my block moved on its path to completion.

The change started with the appearance of dumpsters in front of the five-story walk-ups. Like dominos, these buildings were transformed. The railroad apartments were gutted to make way for more expensive studio and one bedroom apartments, and long-time tenants were supplanted by young professionals with lots of cash.

Once the transition was complete there were no more street games. The kids just disappeared. The moo-moo clad women were replaced by empty stoops. Those stoops had once been social clubs for the tenants; now they were just the entrance to a building. A few of the old men remained, still converging near their stoop, but they would now have to make way for the hyperactive young professionals rushing to and from work.

Although my family was displaced from our railroad apartment, we would remain on the block for several more years. My family made the long journey two doors down to one of the newly renovated buildings where my dad became the super.

I now lived on a block, which would come to resemble the lifeless face of the rest of Yorkville. With the change of my block, I now had to migrate to 80th street to play with my classmates from Saint Monica’s. On 80th Street life would continue unchanged for my friends and me. We still played the old New York games, went to John Jay Park, and hung out on the remaining blocks that hadn’t yet changed. 

My family and I left New York in 1973 for rural New Jersey. I wasn’t witness to the complete transition of Yorkville. As an adult though I have been back to my old neighborhood and am saddened by the changes. The sun stealing high-rises dominate the avenues. The only people on the streets now are those heading to a destination. 

***

Joseph Samuels is recently retired. His Irish ancestry has passed on to him the gift of storytelling. So, at his wife’s insistence, he now writes his stories down. He believes it was her way of just getting him to shut up.

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Yankee Stadium’s Special Dirt https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/05/yankee-stadiums-special-dirt https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/05/yankee-stadiums-special-dirt#respond Sun, 30 May 2021 13:39:31 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11953
New York Yankees Dirt Pen with Authentic Field Dirt from Yankee Stadium (Amazon.com)

In 1992 our middle school band was chosen to perform at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day. Not the national anthem, just a few songs from our repertoire.

The performance was slotted for about two and a half hours before game time.

When we arrived there was hardly anyone in the stands.

We lined up in formation behind the left field wall, waiting for a cue. The longer we waited, the more our band director loosened up. Some kids took his slackened posture as a sign to wander about. My friends and I walked over to the bullpen cage where the visiting pitcher was getting his arm loose.

“Daddy!” I called out to the pitcher. “Daddy, for once please pay attention to me!”

My fellow trumpet players all laughed. It was great.

That’s when I learned about the incredible talent of Major League ball players.

The catcher caught a pitch and, without even looking, swiveled and gunned the ball in my direction, nailing the wire fence right in front of my eyes.

It shook me to my core.

My friends thought it was cool.

It was time to perform. Our band director suddenly looked overwhelmed. “No one is allowed to steal the grass from Yankee Stadium, do you all understand?” He was almost screaming this at us. “Do you understand?”

Yankee Stadium Freeze Dried Grass Sod (Heritage Auctions)

We all nodded

The outfield fence doors parted, and our band teacher backpedaled onto the field, guiding us through the opening. He spun around on his heels with flair. That spin might have been the high point of his career.

We were on the warning track. I couldn’t believe it. The Yankee Stadium warning track!

Then came the grass. My heel sunk in as if it was being caressed by Mother Earth. It was the most virtuous grass I had ever stepped on.

One by one the flute players up front bent over and, without losing a step, snatched up some earth.

The band teacher was not going to turn around. He was in his own little world, chin up in the air, marching as if he was being broadcast live on national TV. I looked around the cavernous stands. Hardly anyone was there.

The clarinets started scooping up some dirt.

When the trumpet section started going for theirs, I pocketed some myself.

Arriving at a satisfactory spot in the field, our clueless band director turned around and viewed us proudly. He conducted with all his might.

We performed our three hits. “Strawberries for Albert,” “Aztec Parade,” and “Jumpin’ Jambalaya.”

Returning back toward the outfield wall, I saw there were lots of potholes in the field. So many that even I was embarrassed. There was no way you couldn’t notice them. There’s no way left fielder Mel Hall wouldn’t notice!

When we exited the field and returned to the area just behind the left field wall, I saw our band director looking deflated. He didn’t say anything to us, but it was clear he’d seen the damage we’d done to the field.

I tried to sell my dirt to some fans just showing up for the game without any luck.

By the time I got home, I was exhausted and took an unusual afternoon nap.

I woke up disoriented and went to search my pockets for my treasure.

It wasn’t there.

I ran to my mom and, before I could ask, she told me that she had thrown away the dirt in my pants.

“That was very special dirt, mom!”

“Get some from the backyard,” she said. “Who’s gonna’ know the difference?”

***

Eric Nolan’s work has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Hechinger Report, Passages North, and X-R-A-Y. He teaches English as a New Language in a public middle school in the Bronx and has recently finished a novel about an unprepared first-year teacher. Connect with him on twitter @normanuniform.

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Joanie and Luddy in Greenwich Village, 1967 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/05/joanie-and-luddy-in-greenwich-village-1967 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/05/joanie-and-luddy-in-greenwich-village-1967#comments Sun, 23 May 2021 13:55:01 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11908
Hanging out in Washington Square Park

Joanie finished bending over the ironing board, her freshly-washed hair nice and flat. She pulled the plug out of the socket, wrapped up the cord, and looked in the mirror and smiled. Her own natural curls would be given free rein in a few years, but right now she wanted to match the long, straight hair of The Beatles’ girlfriends—part of the Mod look that she saw in all her magazines. Her carefully-planned outfit was a red jumpsuit, that her mother had sewn, complete with swinging bell-bottoms. 

Unbeknown to her mom, Joanie was going into the city. The Massapequa, Long Island high school senior told her mother she was spending the night at the home of her classmate and best friend “Luddy” (short for Ludmila), who had offered the same assurance in reverse to her own parents.

All they wanted was to be a part of the Greenwich Village scene. The cute, long-haired boys with guitars were out in full force, and the two friends—“good girls”—had recently met the three most fun, nice, and adorable guys of them all! The boys were kinda crazy and disheveled. One was wiry, had dark hair, and was a bit acerbic; the second was very tall and super-friendly, with a beaming smile and a peaches-and-cream complexion (not one pimple!); and the third looked exactly like Joanie’s favorite Beatle, John Lennon.

Would they see the boys in the park? Joanie had so much fun on the day that they’d first met Tommy, Bert, and Alan (“Pinky”) that she couldn’t wait to return. The girls exited the subway at West 4th Street, took a quick peek in Bloom’s shoe store window, and then continued on to Washington Square Park. She could hear Bert and Tommy before she even saw them. Bert’s voice in particular had a booming quality; he could definitely project and modulate while strumming his guitar. As usual, the duo had drawn a small crowd. Joanie and Luddy eased in, and were greeted with smiles by their new street-urchin idols. The guys remembered them!

It was summertime. The living was easy, and no one had any money. For fun, the five panhandled for subway tokens. Joanie had a couple dollars for the outing, enough for fifteen-cent cups of tea with cinnamon sticks at the Caffe Cock~n~Bull on MacDougal Street. When they got hungry, she fished in her large shoulder bag for the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches she’d made, and passed them around. Bert liked his Orange Julius too—a weird, foamy drink with a “secret recipe.” They sometimes walked over to the Orange Julius store on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, where Tommy’s friend worked and sometimes slipped them freebies. All day and night Joanie and Luddy hung out with the boys, a small self-contained hub where everyone basked in the camaraderie—warm and safe, and accepted.

One of the first times that the two girls had been into the city, Luddy was stopped by the police on MacDougal Street. “What are you doing out so late?”  She was a tiny girl, four-foot-eleven. The officers escorted her to the LIRR and sent her home. Joanie, nearly seven inches taller, remained quiet while her friend was whisked off. She was now alone on the streets of Greenwich Village at midnight. “Don’t worry, you’re with us!” Bert, Tommy, and Alan assured her that they would stay with her all night, and that she could catch the early morning train back to Massapequa. That cemented the trust she felt with her new companions—three Peter Pans who had welcomed these two girls from Long Island into their freewheeling fold.

“Let’s take a walk, I gotta go to someone’s place. Not far, just over to West 4th Street.” Bert climbed the stairs after ringing the buzzer as Joanie held back a bit. The door cracked open. “Come on up!” he urged. Inside the apartment, a little business transaction took place. A few minutes later they were back on the sidewalk. “What was that smell?” she asked. Bert grinned, and they walked back toward the park. He did not make fun of her for not knowing. “That was marijuana.” Joanie couldn’t believe how just being with them made her feel—important!—as they walked the sidewalks of what surely was the center of the universe. “They knew everybody! People on the street, shop-owners, musicians.” The guys always stopped to kid around with Josie, an effeminate, sweet and funny fellow and a staple on MacDougal Street. 

Tired but energized, Joanie and Luddy returned home to Long Island on the commuter train the next morning. The city skyline retreated as they giddily made a list of all the boys they now knew. All because of their new friendship with a trio of musical musketeers.

[This is an excerpt of a  forthcoming biography of the musician Bert Sommer who two years later would perform a 10 song set at the Woodstock music festival.] 

***

Sharon Watts spent thirty formative years in New York City, soaking up street energy. She’s been, at different times: an art school student, a wine stewardess at a kosher-Chinese restaurant, a fashion illustrator, an assemblage artist, and a writer. For more visit sharonwattswrites

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Kaddish in the Time of Covid https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/05/kaddish-in-the-time-of-covid https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/05/kaddish-in-the-time-of-covid#comments Sun, 16 May 2021 13:28:29 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11880

What is it about anniversaries? Is it that the earth is again in the same place relative to the sun, and that we are occupying the same spot in the cosmos? You were here, but differently. Something has changed from when you were at this position before: you got married; planes hit the twin towers; you stopped smoking. The sameness marks the difference between then and now.

A little over a year ago, we were heading into February after a winter light on snow. The news of the virus hitting China seemed not particularly relevant. There is a photo on my phone of a man waiting on the 34th street downtown C platform. I had taken it in derision of his protective gear: goggles and what looked like a respirator you’d use if you were sanding sheetrock.

Three weeks later, I was far less smug. On February 29th, the first U.S. death by COVID was announced; on March 3rd, the first case was reported in New York; on March 8th, New York City issued guidelines to avoid densely packed buses, subways, or trains. On March 12th, Broadway shut down, and, on March 13th, Mayor De Blasio declared a State of Emergency for the city.

It happened so fast.

But there is another, slightly earlier, anniversary that vies for my attention. On February 26, four days before New York’s first COVID case, I was lying next to my mother, holding her hand and playing music for her on my phone, as her breaths grew less and less frequent, and, finally, stopped altogether.

My mother had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for 12 years and was 94, so the death was not a surprise. It was, in many ways, a blessing; she weighed less than 70 pounds and often seemed to be in pain. But, until just a little before then, her eyes had still lit up with her spirit, and her smile had still been delighted. I’m an only child; my father died half my lifetime ago. Losing her was hard.

Back in the city a few days later, I tried to plan a memorial as I waited for the ashes to be shipped to me. But suddenly people were leery of gathering, and perhaps the denial I had about her actually her being dead interfered with my plan-making skills. And then people were dying everywhere, the city was shutting down, and my grief seemed frivolous. At least I’d gotten to be with my mother at the end; look at all these people dying alone. I was lucky that she had died when she did. I knew that. And that knowledge short-circuited my mourning. Her death was subsumed for me in the larger loss that followed.

But the larger loss was also subsumed by my loss of her. For some part of me, the pausing of the world, and especially the closure of New York, was an acknowledgement of her death, the response, the sign.

My mother was born and grew up and worked in New York.  She lived here until her Alzheimer’s forced her to move up to the Berkshires where her partner lived. For years, my mother had been commuting back and forth. Until Alzheimer’s rendered all assumptions laughable, it was a given that she would never relinquish her city.

And, in fact, she never really did give up New York. She’d call me from the Berkshires house and tell me that she was coming back because she’d been offered a job and that she’d stay with her parents (dead for over half a century). One night, her partner woke up to her side of the bed empty. He found her walking down the country mountain road in the dark, trying to get back to New York— which led him to relocate her to an assisted living facility. 

The staff there eventually had to move her to the more secure “enhanced” unit because she kept walking out the front door to head back to New York on foot. The facility was just off a busy 50-mile-per hour feeder route; it’s a wonder that she wasn’t hit by a car.

Katie and Nancy

On Monday, February 24th, 2020, the hospice nurse called and told me I should come up. I spent Tuesday with my mother. She was lying in bed, eyes not closed but not seeing. I lay down next to her and talked to her about her life and played music from Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies on my phone. Every once in a while she would raise an arm and arc it above us, as if she were dancing. Her legs would move too. I wondered if they wanted to lead her out of the room, the building, the state, and back to her city.

On Wednesday, her mouth was fixed half-open, like she’d been in the middle of saying something and the video had paused. I played Pete Seeger songs on my phone and told her all the places we were going to visit in New York: Joe Allen’s and Lincoln Center, MoMA, the Met. All her favorites. She didn’t move at all.

The hospice nurse told me I should leave before the people from funeral home came, so I did.

When New York began shutting down less than two weeks later, I became one of those who fled. At first I planned to go only for a week, so that my son would be able to have somewhere to go now that his college was closing. The day before, Mayor De Blasio had declared the state of emergency and rumors were flying that no one would be allowed into the city. But my exile continued for a while, though I intended every month to come back home. 

Maybe it was easier for me to stay away because my mother was gone. Maybe I needed to stay away because she was gone.

Of course, I was lucky, again. Lucky that I had a place to go and that I could work remotely. That I could watch New York 1 on television every morning from the relative safety of northwestern Connecticut and have the luxury of feeling homesick and grief-struck and ashamed of leaving my city.

But now I’m back. I walk around this most resilient of places, smiling big under my mask at the messiness of the city, its grime and its life. New York survived, of course. It had no other option. When my friends who had remained here would tell me to stay away because it wasn’t the New York I knew, I never believed them. You could just as easily say that the New York of the 2000’s was not the New York of my childhood or adolescence, or even my early adulthood. 

New York is a place of its own, an island, with a topography (granted shifting via development of the waterfronts), a position on the globe. The pull of the East and Hudson rivers, the schist, valleys and hills, even the sewers and the subway tunnels, fix the physical city. And its incarnations, the palimpsest nature of the place for anyone who has lived here for even a year, are what allow present and past to jostle for attention in the lovely, wistful, aching way that is an essential part of what it means to be a New Yorker.

The landscape of the past year has been one of incalculable loss, and we mourn as we note the return to this cosmic spot and look back over our shoulder at the last time we were here.

But an anniversary also invites us to turn our thoughts ahead and to anticipate a happier next year, a future vantage point where we are better off than we were last year. Spring is here, the vaccines are here, the infection rate is down. Do we dare to be hopeful? We are all moving into a future, which, like  New York, will be different, but will still be ours. 

In Jewish tradition, the anniversary of someone’s death, called the yahrzeit, is marked by lighting a candle and saying a prayer called a Kaddish. Our family was non-observant to the point of ignorance (I just had to Google to find “yahrzeit”), but, still, I wanted to mark this day for my mother, here, in her city.

So if you saw a woman standing outside, say, the Actors Studio, or by the clock in Central Park, or MoMA, or Joe Allen’s, with her hand in her coat pocket and her lips moving, that may have been me, sprinkling some of my mother’s ashes from a hole in my pocket and, finally, saying goodbye.

***

Kate Neuman is a writer and actor. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Iowa Review, The Independent (UK), Juxtaprose, The Citron Review, and The Village Sun. She was born in New York City and has never lived anywhere else for long.

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Reading at Trump Tower https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/05/reading-at-trump-tower https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/05/reading-at-trump-tower#respond Sun, 09 May 2021 18:10:02 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11830
Jeff Bergman and the group

Part I. Project Runway

She sauntered by at noon, shopping bags swinging from both arms, striding toward the infamous golden escalators. She was attractive with a flowing mane and long gait. Mostly, I noticed the grey raincoat she was wearing; it was a bright, summer day outside. Then she got swallowed up in the atrium’s faceless mob oohing at all things gilded. My eyes returned to our reading, something from Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, as I remember. Our group was circled around the reader, listening intently. I planted myself back in the text, and that was that. I thought.

At some point, I heard a rhythmic clicking—slightly off-beat: click-CLACK, click-CLACK. It came from our right, the same direction where the woman had gone. I glanced over. Nothing but a sea of fat bellies, Bermuda shorts, and I-Heart t-shirts. So I forced myself back to the reading, but then the clacking got louder. Suddenly, there she was again: the mystery woman, casually strolling our way, attracting rubberneck gawkers left and right. The raincoat was gone—stuffed in her tote bag, I guessed. Now she seemed more in-season, sporting a long-sleeved, olive t-shirt.

Everybody was gazing by then: tourists, uniformed flunkies, even the uncool klatches of suits waiting for the elevators to the high holy floors. All ears pricked up at the awkward click-clack. The woman’s steps seemed slightly wobbly. I saw then she’d changed shoes, switching from flats to enormously tall lifts—shiny-gold nine-inchers. Right up there with Melania Maleficent herself. 

Melania doppelganger

She teetered past, making her way toward the black-helmeted guards at the revolving doors. I followed her progress shamelessly. A topple and crash seemed very possible. I saw she had letters scrawled on the back of her shirt—possibly painted—all in bold white. “BE HUMAN AND CARE,” they read. By now, all nearby heads had turned. I wrestled the phone from my pocket and reeled off six or seven shots. Then, in a blink, she was gone, out through the garish doors, into the flood of people on 5th Avenue. 

Had she actually been there? I glanced around. All the liveried employees—floor cleaners, guards, elevator operators—were grinning shamelessly; the Trump acolytes, had turned away to look pointedly elsewhere. They knew no good could come of their gawking. Hidden eyes peered through secret camera to capture any infidelities. Off to my right I saw Jeff Bergman, our own fearless protest leader, smiling and poking at his phone screen. He’d grabbed photos of her too. In front of him, Kris continued reading to the members of our small group, unaware of the brazen woman’s silent march. 

It was those clacking heels that revealed the awkward runway gait of an amateur. Like me, Jeff had heard them. And suddenly I got it. The woman was a Melania doppelganger, lighting for those few brief seconds a bright candle in the sordid, declasse glitter and marble of Trump Tower lobby. It was just a few scant days since the other Melania, the “real” one, had tastelessly displayed herself walking across yet another runway—the type planes land on—to visit 55 separated children in a Texas detention center, all the while sporting her own curdled message: “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?” What we’d just seen, right here in the belly of the beast, was a tall, stiff, middle finger being brandished at the place itself. The idea of the place, in fact. It’s kind of why we were all there.

Part II. Lies of the Land

Trump, as cheap a chiseler as any developer who ever fleeced the city, didn’t want his grand lobby open to the unwashed. New Yorkers know the development game is rigged. But this time “The Donald’s” wheedling caught up with him when he slapped together his Tower. Naturally, he broke every agreement in constructing his edifice: reneging on his pledge to preserve the limestone art deco bas reliefs and deco grillwork of the grand Bonwit Teller Department store that he tore down; hiring undocumented non-union immigrants as laborers; stiffing sub-contractors; and using mob concrete in some slimy quid quo pro. For all that, though, he wasn’t quite able to shuck the city code enforcers when it came to the use of space. 

As always with him, it was about money and vanity. He craved something big and black and tall, and he wanted it at 56th and 5th, as expensive a slice of commercial property as there was. And he wanted to exceed building height limitations and other rules in staking out his claim. 

For adding on twenty extra stories over the height, Trump agreed to a “public-space” giveback of the type one often sees in the city—basically public space that mainly benefits plutocrats. You see these deals all over Manhattan: pristine, nicely-planted walkways in front of skyscrapers, public art, and concrete benches for the footsore. What Trump did with his space is carve out a tacky, self-aggrandizing indoor mausoleum—the Trump Tower Lobby—vaulting up into empty air and generously featuring filtered views of real clouds. 

When the place first opened, he crammed all manner of pricey retail establishments into the lobby (another fudge of the rules). For a while, this cramped, cheesy mall brought in serious rental income, but Trump’s overarching greed caught up with him when his clients found themselves losing money. Apparently, the public wasn’t buying it—literally—and the retail tenants let their leases lapse. In the end, with the exception of a mezzanine Starbucks, Trump had to meet the mortgage by filling the place up any way he could. 

“Any way he could” turned into an all-Trump theme park: a restaurant, the “fabulous” Trump Grille; “Ivanka,” a pricey gift and clothing store curated by Herself and stocked with eponymous designs; the inviting (though somewhat shady) Trump Bar; a Trump Ice Cream Counter that never seems open; a Trump Golf Shop with all merchandise grandly embossed; two Trump Shoppes—both peddling official Trump “gear”; and, deep down below, the Trump Restrooms: free to use, not trimmed in Trump gilt, but providing much-needed respite in a city not known for its pissoirs.

Part III. “Lets’ Read”

Then, of course, Trump got elected President, and the hall of mirrors turned from grotesque to terrifying. Fifty-sixth Street was closed, traffic replaced by police guard posts; security from multiple agencies strode the lobby, packing M-4s or shoulder-holstered gats; checkpoints sprang up periodically on surrounding blocks; and, of course, 5th Avenue was aswarm with loud, raucous protesters.

Michael Elias and his grandson

Enter Jeff Bergman, founder, designer, and proprietor of the ad hoc group “Learn As Protest.” The week of the election, Jeff took to strolling over to this chaos from his office on 57th – not to shout or jeer, but instead to pursue an activity not associated with the Black Tower: Reading. 

Jeff’s protest chops go back, twenty-five years back, to high school and college. He has publicly opposed raw greed and the ill use of human beings by their self-entitled “betters” (everyone from politicians to developers to child molesters). He favors a neat coat-and-tie look, doesn’t outshout people (unless provoked), and uses the centuries-old seat of civilization itself—literacy—as his medium. Back in November of 2016, word of his Trump Tower protest spread and quickly blossomed, especially within the art community. His know-how and aplomb turned the sacred lobby itself into a protest site.

Jeff and company read daily through December 2016, with all kinds of participants. By the time I got tipped off, it was January. The hubbub had died down some and the press had thinned out. Melania and Barron were still around, but they kept out of sight. Inauguration Day provided the only real fireworks that first winter, when the normally deserted bar got engorged with cheering jackals in suits.

By inauguration, Jeff had cut back the public reading to once a week. The group gathered every Friday noon at the lobby benches (once ordered removed by Trump himself to keep riff-raff from congregating, only to have his scheme nixed by the City). Sometimes there were up to twenty-five of us; other weeks, it was just Jeff and me. Our readers ranged from teenagers to octogenarians, scholars to businesspeople, millionaires to nil-ionaires. Our rules were simple: Anything written was fair game—political philosophy, scalding opinion pieces, literature, history. We read it all: politics from Orwell to Lessig to Butler; literature from Twain, Atwood, and Morrison; poetry from Brooks to Yeats to Ginsberg; snippets from protestors past—Douglass, Dylan and Guthrie. The list expanded every week for four years.

We—the scores of us who read—shared a belief that the country had taken a terribly wrong turn and needed to be righted by peaceful means. Other protest groups joined us at times, some by plan, others who just happened in. When officials occasionally questioned our right to be there, Jeff quietly explained the City’s public-use rules to them. If we got challenged by the Tower’s more belligerent visitors, we invited them to read with us, anything of their choice. A couple actually did.

Police guard

There were counter-protesters too. A group of high-school cheerleaders showed up to do a screechy, yay-yay Trump number, pompons a-swirl, but the guards kicked them out for being loud and carrying signs—both no-no’s. A Kellyanne Conway look alike popped in once to advertise for a DJT Nobel Prize; she got put on the pavement after trying to scamper away from the authorities. Our only real public tiff came when an acrid, gnomish scoffer (I tagged him Quasimodo) tried horning in to shout over us. They took Quasi away too; it might have been Trump’s tower, but it wasn’t his police force.  

When the pandemic hit, Jeff set up a Zoom network and the readings went on. The final session happened—remotely, of course—on Halloween Eve. Perfect in a way, just in time for the national exorcism. Last time I got up to the Trump Tower, things had definitely changed. It was September: BLM had happened and Trump’s sour presidency was on the rocks. 

If he actually wanted to shoot someone out front now, I thought, he’d have to do it standing on a block-long yellow sign painted on the Avenue.

***

Jeff Loeb is a writer who has lived in New York continuously since 2013 (and sporadically before that, dating to 1972).

In prior lives, he enjoyed long careers as, in roughly this order, US Marine, bartender, construction worker, waiter, truck driver, furniture mover, college teacher, radio reporter (WBAI – D.C. Bureau), assistant city manager, cable television company manager, photography studio owner, farmer/rancher, academic writer, and high-school teacher

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L.A. Lawless https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/05/l-a-lawless https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/05/l-a-lawless#comments Sun, 02 May 2021 13:56:20 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11808

It’s the summer of 1978. I drive from New York to Los Angeles to try to make it big as an actor. I camp out at my friend Karen’s one-room apartment near Paramount Studio for a few days Then her married boyfriend shows up. So I move on to several Hollywood flophouses before finding a studio apartment in Burbank. The high point of my day becomes a trip to my bank to use their free blood pressure machine just to make sure I’m still alive. 

Unlike New York, where you can make rounds and go to open acting calls, in L.A. you have to wait for your agent to set up appointments. I call my agent repeatedly. The secretary takes my number. He doesn’t call back. After several weeks of roaming the endless shopping malls, hanging out at the local library, and hitting every health food store in the Valley, I’ve had enough. I call Karen in tears. “My career is dead. I want to go home.”

Karen swears me to secrecy and then she whispers, “Come to the Breakdown Club.”

I imagine a roomful of frustrated actors sobbing and pounding pillows, letting it all hang out because they can’t get a job. But Karen sets me straight. She tells me the group illegally obtains the list of all the movies and TV shows being cast each day, and then its members try to get auditions on their own. This is against the law. But we have no choice if we want to get the inside scoop on what’s auditioning. Agents pay a fee for this service, but actors are forbidden to buy them or have access to them. That’s why this secret cadre has gone searching for inside information on the black market.

We assemble in a storage room over someone’s garage on the Sunset Strip. I skulk up some rickety stairs, stepping over stacks of old newspapers and bottles of weed killer. When I make it to the top, I find myself in a dusty room with a bunch of actors sitting in dilapidated lawn chairs set around a picnic table. They are reading and making notes.

A guy in a Hawaiian shirt sits at the head of the table with a sheaf of papers in his hands. I go up to him and whisper, “Karen sent me,” and slip him five dollars. He motions for me to take a seat and hands me a sheet of paper. I find out that Mork and Mindy is casting for the role of Mork’s cousin Ork—“25, a loveable alien, should be able to do handsprings.” Next. 

After we finish, a woman in the group with white lipstick who looks like a beat-up Goldie Hawn invites me to a free preview of EST training. “It will help you get work,” she assures me.

As soon as we walk into the LA Coliseum, a black woman with a shaved head and a ring through her nose buttonholes me. “Hi, I’m Lean Bacon. Do you want to change your life?”

She tells me that since she took the training she has won every major award in show business except an Academy Award. She promises I will follow in her footsteps if I sign up for the next seminar. How can I refuse?

The next day at Breakdown Club I see a casting call for an updated version of Li’l Abner called “Women’s Lib Comes to Dogpatch.”  I phone my agent. The secretary asks how I know about this, “You’re not getting breakdowns, are you? Some actors were arrested for that last week.”

“Oh, no, a friend told me,” I lie. 

I get an audition and am cast in the role with the pathetic name of Sexless Jones. Unfortunately, it conflicts with my EST training. I call Lean and beg for my money back, swearing I’ll do EST as soon as the pilot is over. She finally sends it to me, but from then on she calls me several times a week, “You made a commitment. What’s in the way of your following through?”

When I arrive on the set, I find that the actress playing my sister got the part when she delivered coffee to the producer and he liked the way she laughed. That and her C cups spilling out of her blouse. Daisy Mae can’t remember her lines and doesn’t know what blocking is. Gee, I’m glad I knocked myself out getting a BFA at Carnegie Mellon’s Drama Department so I’d be ready to perform with these heavyweight thespians. I say my three lines, collect my pay, and I’m unemployed again.

A few days later, I see an episode of Charlie’s Angels called “Angels Ahoy” on breakdowns. They are looking for the role of Lisa Blake, a shy librarian who gets thrown overboard while the Angels are taking a romantic cruise. I call. I read. I’m hired. 

I arrive on the set at Twentieth Century Fox at the appointed hour, report to hair and make-up, and find myself wedged in between Cheryl Ladd and Jaclyn Smith.

There is total silence in the room. Finally, I lean slightly towards the great Jaclyn. “Hi.” More silence, which continues until Cheryl and Jaclyn are called to the set. When they leave, the make-up woman tells me, “Don’t take it personal, dear. The Angels are feuding No one speaks to anyone on this set.”

I sit around till almost midnight. Finally, I’m called to the set. We are in Golden Time now. We’re talking double pay. And I am about to really earn it. 

As I come onto the set, the director starts barking commands at me.

“Hurry up. Hit your mark, open the cabin door with your left hand, then turn at a 45 degree angle to the camera, walk forward and hit that mark on the floor, then back up as you say your lines and hit the mark in back of you.”

“But I can’t see it.”

“Don’t talk to me about what you can’t see. We’re paying you. You see it. Then turn to the left at a thirty-five-degree angle, and scream loudly, but not too loudly, we don’t want to blow out the sound system. Then crouch in the corner, but make sure you’re in the light. And look scared.”

No problem there. But after repeated attempts to hit all my marks and angles, I am still not making the grade. Finally the director throws down his baseball cap and says to the cameraman, “Where did they get her? Can’t they find me someone who can act?”

Tears sting my eyes. The actor playing my killer puts his arm around me. He gently talks me through the motions. We finally finish around 3 a.m. I collect my large check, but have no future prospects. 

That weekend I take a walk on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Someone hands me a flyer. “Are you lonely, fearful, sad? We can help. Come to the Scientology Center and take a free personality test.”

Later that day, I arrive at a white stucco building on Olympic Boulevard that looks like a mini White House. I am ushered into a room to be tested. My counselor proudly tells me this building is earthquake proof, so even if the worst happens Scientology will live on. He has me hold two tin cans connected to a meter. For the next several hours, he asks me the same question. 

“What are you doing?”

“Holding tin cans.”

“What are you doing?”

“Sitting in a chair.”

“What are you doing?”

“Breathing.”

At the end he tells me I have deep-seated problems, but if I write Scientology a five hundred dollar check, they can cure me. 

“Do you have your checkbook. We have a class starting in a few hours.”

“No. I’ll have to go get it.”

I bolt out the door and never look back.

When I get home, the phone’s ringing. Karen invites me to a party in Beverly Hills. “They’re selling this fantastic chain letter. All you have to do is invest a hundred dollars and you could become a millionaire.”

I drive to a swanky apartment in Beverly Hills. The hostess is a woman named Sasha who looks like the former Miss America, Bess Myerson, plus about ten pounds of make-up and gold jewelry. There’s French wine and foie gras canapés. The guests are decked out in diamonds. Sasha clinks a crystal goblet with a tiny silver fork.

“Friends thank you so much for coming tonight. Let me say that if you are enjoying tonight’s little soiree, it’s all thanks to the Circle of Gold. It’s so simple to make money if you are willing to dive in. All you have to do is buy the letter from someone here tonight for $50.Then you mail $50 to the top name on the list. Your name will go on the bottom of the list. Then you sell your letter to two people for fifty dollars each. So you can’t lose. When your name reaches the top, there will be hundreds of people sending you $50 bills every day. Just like they do to me. Thanks to the Circle of Gold, I don’t have to work, and neither will you, ever again.”  She opens a leather valise. It’s overflowing with fifty dollar bills. “All this can be yours. Will the people selling letters here tonight raise their hands?” Dozens of hands shoot up. “Great, now will the prospective buyers raise theirs?”

My hand floats up. Immediately, sellers surround me. I hash it out with a young guy who says he has a running part on Days of Our Lives. I wonder why he needs to get rich quick. But he’s cute. 

“What if I can’t sell the letter?”

He clasps my hand, “I’ll help you. Just drop by the set.”  Sounds good to me. I lean in close to his perfect face. “When will the money start rolling in?”

He flashes a smile with probably $10,000 worth of dental work at me. “Within the week.” 

I hand him $50 and he gives me a stamped envelope addressed to the top name on the list. I put $50 in it. He walks me to the mailbox, and I drop it in. I turn around hoping he’ll escort me to my car or ask me to go clubbing, but he’s halfway down the block. 

Oh well. Once I’m rich, I’ll be surrounded by lovers. I drive home envisioning my sumptuous new lifestyle, the servants, the oceanfront homes, the jewelry. When I get in, I call everyone I’ve remotely heard of for the next week. No one wants to hit the jackpot. I call the cute guy who sold me the letter. No response. Finally I sell it to a girl in my acting class and the assistant to the casting director who gave me the job on Charlie’s Angels. The next day, they both leave messages that they want their money back. I don’t return the calls. This goes on for a week. By now the casting assistant is saying she’ll make sure I’ll never work in L.A. and the actress is threatening to sue me. Finally, I decide I need to get some back up. I call Sasha. Her phone’s been disconnected. I call Karen. She’s hyperventilating. All she says is “Get New West Magazine.”

I drive to the nearest newsstand and reach for a copy. Then I see the headline. CIRCLE OF GOLD SCAMMERS BUSTED. Sasha’s picture is on the cover. I tear open the magazine and read the article. Apparently there was an undercover cop at the party I attended. He collared Sasha and several of her cohorts for running a pyramid scheme. The writer describes some of the other guests, including me. By name! I’m so panicked I don’t even care that he calls me “a prune-faced Joan Rivers look alike.” My eyes are glued to the final sentence. “More arrests are imminent.”

I step on the gas, race back to my apartment, throw all my things into suitcases and garbage bags, and head to the airport. On the way, I ditch my car and whatever I can’t carry in a friend’s garage. Then I take the next plane to New York. I figure if I cross state lines, I can escape the cops. As we hit cruising altitude, I stumble to the bathroom and splash the sweat off my face with cold water. Thank god I’m heading back to the mean streets of New York City, where there are so many criminals that no one will notice me. Still maybe I should consider plastic surgery. I look at my face in the mirror and a disturbing thought comes back to me. I take another look. Prune-faced Joan Rivers?

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The Flaneuse’s Return https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/04/the-flaneuses-return https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/04/the-flaneuses-return#comments Sun, 25 Apr 2021 13:13:17 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11783
Prospect Park Ravine

Every now and again I find myself contemplating a suitable place for a desk. This may sound mundane, except that the home in these musings is not where I live.

Even in reverie, this desk-placing endeavor is no easy feat. For while the contemplation serves as a daydream, the home—an apartment in Kensington, Brooklyn—actually exists. And because it exists, one must respect its actual precincts. One cannot place a desk in a fictional space.

That is to say, I cannot place a desk in a spare room or office because in this apartment there is no spare room or office. What there is, rather, is a rectangular main room from which extend like the arms on an E, a vestibule, kitchen, and bathroom, and before the bathroom, two windows and a short, narrow hall. A desk, if there is to be one, must occupy one of those spaces.

The vestibule contains a closet. Sometimes I imagine bracketing a sturdy piece of wood to the back of that closet and using that as a desk. Given the closet’s dimensions (about six square feet), the desk could accommodate a laptop, notepad, and lamp. I could even add a shelf or two above the desk for supplies and books. This configuration would amount to a small home office. Sheltered from distractions, I might work in that office. And then when I’m done, I could close the door on workaday stuff.

Other options would be to put a desk in the small, narrow hall, which also contains a closet, or to the left or right of the windows. These last two locations would provide more space than the closet. Yet, both arrangements would lend themselves to gazing at street life below and necessitate moving the bookshelves that existed, and in the time warp of my mind still exist, in those spots.

When I lived in that apartment, I did not have a desk. What I had was a butcher-block counter in the kitchen and a sofa and bed in the main room. Sometimes I’d type on my laptop at the butcher-block counter. 

In any case, one might consider these alternatives moot. After all, it’s been nearly a decade since I lived in that apartment. I now live in a house in Utah more than two-thousand miles away, a house, I might add, with a comfortable desk.

That still leaves the question of placement. Not of my current desk or home office, which consists of more than a closet, and brims with well-arranged books, but rather of myself. In other words, the question that drives these recurring fantasies is none other than this: Where is an apt place for me?

Before moving to my current home in Utah, I spent most of my life in New York. As a native of Gotham, I had long contemplated leaving for greener environs. Some of my happiest moments in the city involved strolling through the forest in the Bronx Botanical Gardens or trekking to the Cloisters along the sylvan paths of Fort Tryon Park. Thinking about those walks, I feel as clearly now as I did when I took them the delight of being amid old-growth trees and rich loamy duff. Absent the usual urban cues, I would imagine myself into rustic locales. But the purity of feeling seldom endured. The blare of a back-up beeper or horn sufficed to remind me that though I could feign being in the country, I’d never really left town. And that at some point I’d need to go home.

Not that my home itself posed a problem. Indeed, for several years, home was the apartment where I still contemplate placing a desk. Rather, it was traveling I despised. A visit to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, for instance often required an hour and a half each way. Destinations beyond the metropolis—hiking trails along the Hudson or further upstate—took even longer. After several hours travelling by Amtrak and subway, I’d arrive home depleted of the well-being I’d gained from my idyllic excursions. And so, more often than not, I chose to embrace nature closer to home. This meant walking about a mile to Greenwood Cemetery in one direction or Prospect Park in another, or else three miles to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.  I’d bought my Brooklyn  apartment with those places in mind. Still, the goings and the returning involved pavement pounding. Would that trees embowered my home.

Which in my present home they do. And which, hedonic adaptation be damned, I seldom cease to appreciate. 

Now, for instance, I’m sitting on the deck, which is wet from predawn rain. My rooster is crowing; one of the hens is laying an egg. The pine forest, located to the west, exists in matinal penumbra. But the aspens, which flank the house to the east, shimmer in early-morning sun. Amid this arboreal splendor, I imbibe petrichor and tea.

This setting suits me: the petrichor, the chickens, the deck, the pine forest, the aspens, the mist. How fortunate I am, who never expected such luck, to reside in this bucolic grandeur.

But unlike the yogi who shuns rumination in favor of “living in the present,” I reside not only in the physical world around me but also in imagined ones within. And so while moments ago I was steeped in the sensory experience of sitting on the deck, I have now shifted focus to the Brooklyn apartment.

An apartment someone else lives in now, but that I still happen to own. Sometimes I conjure images of that someone—a graduate student and teacher—awakening in that apartment, which is tidy and spare and demands little of her labors and time. Instead of feeding chickens and harvesting fruit, as I did before retiring to the deck with my tea, she can go directly to the tea and sip it while studying or writing.

It’s becoming apparent these reveries of my Brooklyn apartment involve, among other things, a craving for relief from chores. And within that space, opened by a lessening of chores, a hunger for increased intellectual engagement.

I’ve considered scaling back on the homestead: give away the chickens; let the orchard go to the birds. Yet even writing these words triggers feelings of loss. And if contemplation alone stirs these sensations, what emotions might actual scaling back—or even abdication—arouse? 

Earlier I suggested distaste for pounding the pavement. That’s true when my focus is rustic. But there are times I can imagine few more gratifying pastimes than traipsing the streets of New York. On such occasions, I might head to a chosen café that offers a certain aesthetic: unobtrusive music or no music at all; no more than four or five tables; fellow patrons reading or writing, or engaged in bookish tête-à-têtes (spoken with just enough volume to enable me to eavesdrop or simply ignore). Chosen because it’s far enough from home to allow for an ample walk, but not so far as to hitch my mental wanderings to a single-minded focus on breakfast. And then after coffee, reading, and a scone, onward to another destination. That could mean a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and up to the Strand. Why? Perhaps because I’d noted in a book I was reading reference to another that I might also enjoy. And then after the Strand, further uptown to sort through shirts at a thrift store. Because here’s the thing: though bookstores and thrift shops are fine destinations, these walks are primarily about the treasures I might find along the way.

And while books and shirts may comprise some of those treasures, others consist of street scenes—a middle-aged Muslim woman helping an older Jewish woman negotiate a curb, a lanky teen wordlessly handing a stranger his cell phone before proceeding to carry her toddler-laden stroller up the stairs from the subway. Sometimes these treasures, like those we may find in a curio shop, are naught but pure intrigue—a goat wandering willy-nilly along the avenue, a man in top hat and tails strutting across Lullwater Bridge in Prospect Park.

Many riches lie, not in the city per se, though urban scenes catalyze them, but rather inside my head. Urban walking is not merely a physical pastime, but also a mental one of observing and thinking, pursuits that comprise the flaneuse’s raison d’être.

The best way to practice this is usually in the company of one. Yet, as much as the flaneuse enjoys large swathes of solitude, engagement  can also be a privilege. Thus, a certain nostalgia for walks with a friend through a rainy Central Park where from beneath our umbrellas we considered the motives impelling so-and-so’s behavior or words. That so-and-so may be a character in a novel or an actual person hardly matters. Few experiences prove more delightful than two close friends engaged in conversation while orbiting the park in the rain.

Earlier this week I went for a solitary walk in the canyon. In the solitude and in the walk, I recognized traits of my New York self transposed into a pine and juniper forest. Following a riparian trail, I came upon a waterfall set deep in a ravine. I made my way down the ravine and leaned against a rock. For a while, the moment prevailed: here I was alone by a waterfall in a pine and juniper forest. How outlandish it felt that I, a born urbanite, should find myself in these backwoods environs. More outlandish still was that I had driven myself there along swerving canyon roads, when prior to moving to the intermountain west I had seldom driven at all.

Leaning against the rock, I contemplated these swerves not merely in the roads, but also in the course of life. And then I got to pondering the waterfall of Ambergill Falls in Prospect Park. Located in a ravine, it was designed by Olmstead and Vaux to resemble certain falls in the Adirondacks. Now here I was pondering how this waterfall in the intermountain west reminded me of Ambergill Falls.

When I first began traversing Prospect Park, Ambergill Falls didn’t exist. Or rather, it existed but had become buried under silt. Then in the 1990s, combined efforts led to the restoration of many hidden gems including Ambergill Falls. Thereafter, I would sometimes find myself tarrying by those falls, fantasizing about being in a forest.

Now after a decade of living in such a place, I wonder if I might appreciate Ambergill Falls for what it is, an architecturally-designed verisimilitude of natural falls fed by a pipe from the municipal water-supply system, providing an idyllic respite in the midst of the city.

Might my mental habits add yet one more layer to the palimpsest of memory, so that a future tarry by Ambergill Falls triggers imaginings not only of the Adirondacks but also of a waterfall in the intermountain west? Some might consider these ruminations a sign of compromised sanity. Lacking qualifications on the matter, I’ll refrain from opining. What I will say is that I find joy in plumbing the layers of memory not only for the lived experiences it reveals but also for patterns of my preoccupations.

Surely, it’s of consequence that here on my deck I’m sitting not on a lawn chair, but rather at a table one might find in an urban café. One might read this arrangement as an urban dot of yin in a rural swirl of yang. If so, then it’s a dot that’s diffusing into the swirl. Which is another way of saying that my desire for the city is growing.

Not all aspects of the city, of course. I could do without the immense inequalities that leave so many people struggling to meet basic needs. Just as senescence prompts many a soul to wax rueful for youth, exile may spark nostalgia for the home one has left. 

Even as I write these words, I wonder if I’m guilty in absentia of glorifying my urban life or if I suffer from a species of nostalgie de la boue. Yet, considering these possibilities does little to dampen the joy I feel at revisiting my inner Gotham museum, the one that holds in its collection the time a passenger dropped her cell phone while exiting a rush-hour train, a mishap which prompted the concatenation of rapid-fire collaboration by fellow passengers to reunite owner with gadget. Or the time a beggar requested from me a quarter before noticing that I appeared utterly dejected. “Here,” he said, handing me a dollar from his cup. “Looks like you could use more help than me.”

That moments like these spark longing may seem odd. Yet these feelings have become more pronounced since the start of the current pandemic. While nearly half a million people have fled the city in recent months, I’m the expat who aches for return.

Perhaps, I want to be present as witness. Studying photo essays of the city, I’ve tried to imagine how it might feel to be there now. Does one walk by morgue trucks and grieve? Enter grocery stores with trepidation or angst? People-watch from a safe distance and still take pleasure in observing?

I’ve asked my tenant what it’s like in the city for her. “We learn to adapt,” she said. She’s studying and teaching online, so spends much time inside. I picture her working at her desk, which she’s placed where my bookshelves used to be.

What I haven’t heard in her responses is any intimation of leaving New York. Quite the contrary. During a recent exchange, she informed me that the apartment across the hall had gone on the market and that she was planning to buy it. She was wondering how I’d feel if she moved before the end of the lease. “I’d feel fine about it,” I said.

That, it turns out, was an understatement. Promptly, I returned to contemplating a place for my desk. It won’t be in a closet, I’ve decided. After many years of such an arrangement, I now covet more of a view. Not of trees, but rather of an urban panorama. These shifting human scenes are precisely what I need now to get my work done. So after a decade of living in the diaspora, I will finally make my way home.

***

Felicia Rose recently returned to Kensington, Brooklyn after living in rural Utah for eight years. Her work has appeared in various publications including The Westchester Review, The Lavender Review, Mother Earth News, and The Sun. She ekes out a living as an educator and editor. 

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Memories of an East New York Childhood https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/04/memories-of-an-east-new-york-childhood https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/2021/04/memories-of-an-east-new-york-childhood#comments Sun, 18 Apr 2021 13:21:52 +0000 https://mrbellersneighborhood.com/?p=11725
Illustration by Marc Shanker

Boulevard Houses was built in 1950 and consists of eighteen buildings, six and fourteen stories high. Signs in grassy areas warned residents to “Keep Off.” Most people left their doors unlocked, so we could freely go from one apartment to another to chat, play games or borrow a needed item.  

My family did not own a car and neither of my parents had a driver’s license. We walked everywhere. Each week my mother wheeled her cart to Blake Avenue to shop at the pushcarts. Along the way, she would pass bleating goats. My grandparents also lived in East New York, and after a visit to see them we might stop at the Biltmore Theatre to catch a movie. It didn’t matter if the film was at its beginning, middle, or end when we arrived. We would watch till the end and then catch the beginning afterward.

We relied on the subway for travelling longer distances, including when we visited relatives in the Bronx. I lived by the last stop on the New Lots Avenue line of the IRT. Occasionally we ventured into Manhattan to shop in Herald Square or see a Broadway show. We always sat in one of the last rows of the theater, and once a year we went to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes. We would go to the morning show because it cost only 99 cents. 

Most of the families in the projects were Jewish and attended the neighborhood Orthodox synagogue. Men ran the religious services and women sat separately in a small reserved space. Despite being members of the shul, few of our neighbors were very religious. My parents were non-observant but believed that we should have enough information to make up our own minds about how or if we wanted to practice Judaism. As is the custom, my brother was bar mitzvahed and I attended girls’ Hebrew School classes and Saturday youth groups. When I excelled in my Hebrew education and was offered a scholarship to attend a religious girls’ yeshiva, my mother successfully discouraged me from enrolling. “You’ll be the only one in the family to go to heaven,” she said. “It’s going to be lonely for you because the rest of us will certainly go to hell!”

The families in the projects were working class. My father, Izzy, was a printer and active in his union. He was frequently referred to as the building intellectual because he read the New York Times. Everyone else read the Daily News. Izzy was an avid stamp collector, classical music aficionado, and fluent speaker of Esperanto, the international language invented at the end of the 19th century. He combined these interests by corresponding and trading stamps with other philatelic Esperantists around the globe.

Because of my father’s interests, mail delivery was a much anticipated and celebrated event. Frank the mailman became a family friend, and I would stand at his side while he distributed the building’s mail. On days he was absent from work, the replacement mailman would read out the name printed on each piece of mail, and I in turn would yell out the number of the apartment. 

For the first decade of my life, my mother mostly worked at home. This allowed my brother and I to walk home from school at lunchtime. Lenore, a gregarious and civic- minded woman, met my father at a fundraiser for veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which was made up of volunteers who had fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. She was a seamstress and tailored clothes for people in the neighborhood. Initially, I shared a bedroom with my brother, until our next-door neighbors moved to Long Island. Then, by breaking through the wall, we were able to add a third bedroom to the apartment. My bedroom also became my mother’s sewing room, and I grew accustomed to a constant stream of women’s chatter as my mother fitted their clothes in my room. 

There was never a lack of kids to hang out with in the projects. We played running bases, stoop ball, handball, and skelly, and enjoyed hours of fun with simple toys such as balls, tops, yo-yos, hula hoops, kites, and jump ropes. One ditty the children in the projects sang went: 

Illustration by Marc Shanker

“In the land of cheese and blintzes,
There once lived a Yiddisheh princess. 
When she forgot to say her bruchas, 
Papa gave her a potch in the tuchas.” 

By the early 1960s, public housing policy began to change as the federal government put pressure on local authorities to provide housing to the very poor. Simultaneously, racially discriminatory lending practices by banks denied aspiring property owners in East New York access to mortgages and insurance that could have stabilized the community. Families who had resided contentedly in the projects for more than a decade began leaving the neighborhood in droves. Upwardly mobile families went to Flatbush or Nassau County. Others moved to Canarsie, Rochdale Village in Jamaica, and to Trump Village or the Warbasse Houses in Coney Island.  

Little by little our world began to shrink. Poverty, gang violence, and crime increased, and we were no longer able to move safely through bordering neighborhoods. In junior high and high school, the white students were placed in honors classes that segregated us from the larger school community. We often felt threatened while passing through the halls to classes. As summer vacation ended, we had no idea which of our classmates would return to school. Friends we had known from kindergarten were suddenly no longer there.  

My parents moved to Woodside, Queens, in 1970. My father’s union owned the Big Six Towers, a Mitchell Lama cooperative. It was located along the 7 train line, and my parents were thrilled that it took them only twenty minutes to travel to Grand Central Station and Times Square.

One day, about twenty years ago, I returned to my old building with my husband and two children. My son gleefully remarked, “Wow, mom.  You grew up in the hood!” If only he knew what life in the projects was like back in the day.

***

Renee Shanker is a retired social worker and public health professional. Illustrations for this story are by Marc Shanker. See more of his work at Marc Shanker.

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