My Dream of Manhattan

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Gary and me at my graduation from Columbia – May 1982

I always loved Manhattan. I loved the excitement of it, the different neighborhoods, and the energy. While I was in college, at SUNY-Binghamton where I felt exiled in a gray, isolated city that barely deserved that designation, I dreamed of coming to Manhattan to live and work. I got my chance to live the dream when I went to graduate school at Columbia University.

I finished the first of a two year Master’s program at Columbia in May of 1981. I lived in a Columbia-owned apartment building on 80th and Columbus Avenue and I had an internship in New York City’s Mayor’s Office (Ed Koch was the mayor at the time) for the summer.

Each day that summer I descended into the subway station at 79th and Central Park West. The same panhandler that I saw on a daily basis was at the bottom of the stairs. I knew him by his tattered denim jacket and black knit cap. His long legs extended, back propped against the wall, his hand outstretched, jiggling a dirty Styrofoam cup, begging for spare change. Judging by the sound of it, the cup wasn’t very full. I made my way around him. I looked at him briefly, didn’t make eye contact, and continued through the turnstile.

I stood on the platform waiting for the C train. The stagnant, humid air was already warm, despite the early hour. Perspiration started to roll down my back. I hated starting my day with my clothes already damp. I had a desk in a small office that I shared with a full-time staff person and I didn’t want to come in smelling of sweat and the subway. The one window in the office, which contained an air conditioner, looked out at a brick wall inches away. It wasn’t optimal for fresh air, but at least it was cool.

Work was interesting. I was in the Community Assistance Unit (CAU). New York City was divided into community boards. Those boards met with representatives of city agencies (Police, Fire, Sanitation, etc.) to discuss local issues. CAU was the liaison between those boards and the mayor’s office. Staff from CAU attended those meetings and filled out a report. They had files filled with these reports, but nothing had been done with them. That’s where my internship came in. I was to review the reports and look for commonalities or systemic problems and present what I found to the director of the unit.

After finishing my day, if I didn’t have plans after work, I got back on the subway to go uptown. Again, I’d wait for the train to roll into the station. It was always a bad sign if a subway car was empty – that meant one of two things: either the air conditioning wasn’t working or a homeless person was living there and the smell was too overpowering (or both). Sometimes I stepped on to the empty car anyway.

One particular day that summer I got back to my apartment and started dinner. I put a pot of water up to boil. When it came time to add the pasta, I opened the box of spaghetti and a roach fell into the pot along with the dry noodles. I shrieked. I was done. I already had an exterminator on retainer. The building, and many around it, were in the midst of being rehabbed. It didn’t matter how many times the exterminator came, more roaches infiltrated. I lost the war and retreated.

My dream of Manhattan was over. I called my parents and said I was coming home to Canarsie. I knew the commute to Columbia would be a bear, but I would save a lot of money and I just couldn’t deal anymore with life in Manhattan. Between the homeless, the drug addicts, the need for constant vigilance about my personal safety and, finally, the roaches, I gave up. The reality in 1980-81 was a rude awakening.

All these years later, it might surprise you to know that Gary and I agreed that our plan would be to retire to Manhattan. Despite that awful year, I still loved going to the city for shows, ballets, museums and restaurants. Over time, as the 1980s progressed and the city recovered from the fiscal crisis of the late ‘70s, things changed. By the time my children were old enough to take to the city, in the 1990s, I felt comfortable there. I still had to be watchful, keeping my purse wedged between my arm and my body, and be aware of my surroundings, but I felt free to show my children all the city had to offer. My dream of Manhattan reawakened.

Calling on Canarsiens

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I’m not sure what people from Canarsie call themselves – Canarsiens? Canarsie-ites? Either way, I’m asking for your input.

I started this blog with the hope of painting a picture of my life in Canarsie, Brooklyn in the mid 1960s through early ‘70s. It was a time not unlike today, in some ways. It felt fraught, dangerous even. So much was changing and violence, in the form of urban riots and crime, was lurking. I grew up acutely aware of those crosscurrents.

Others growing up in Canarsie at the same time had different perceptions. I deduce this from conversations I have had with friends and from comments posted on the Internet. This isn’t surprising, of course, one would expect different experiences. But some have described an idyllic childhood in which neighbors looked out for each other and children played together in harmony (mostly). Which made me wonder: was my experience the exception?

I want to explore that question. If you (and please feel free to pass this request on) grew up in Canarsie and graduated from either Canarsie High School or South Shore from about 1973-1977 and would like to share your memories, I would like to interview you. Please send me an email at LBakst.Canarsie@gmail.com and I will follow up.

The three major topics I am interested in exploring are: family life, ethnicity/race relations, and perceptions of safety. I am particularly interested in memories of the boycott of schools in response to the busing plan in Canarsie in 1972-73.

This is not going to be a scientific study by any means, but interviews can yield important perspectives. I am hopeful that I will gain more insight into a broader range of experience and then I can share those insights on my blog, either as part of my stories or separately. I will keep the information anonymous, unless you are willing to speak for attribution.

Aside from satisfying my personal curiosity, I’m hoping it will help paint a more detailed picture of that time and place, which in turn should lead to a better understanding of who we are now. I hope the conversation will be interesting to you, too! I hope to hear from you.

Nana’s Table

Note: The following is a longer post than usual. For readers who have been following me from the beginning, some of the stories may be familiar. I have pieced together previous blog posts, along with new material, to create a more complete narrative of my relationship with Nana (my maternal grandmother). I am experimenting with different forms and approaches. Thanks, Leah, for your edits and suggestions. And, thanks Dan for your suggestion for the title. I look forward to feedback from any and all readers!

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After renting various apartments in Brooklyn, my mom and dad took a leap of faith. They bought a new house in a new neighborhood, built on landfill, in Canarsie, Brooklyn. It was August of 1964, they were 30 and 31 respectively, and they were not at all sure that they could afford it on my Dad’s teacher’s salary.

The house, a two-family semi-attached brick and shingle structure, was on a street that had yet to be paved. Every time it rained the dirt road was awash in mud, puddles and rocks. Nana, Zada (my maternal grandparents) and my two uncles, who were teenagers at the time, took the apartment upstairs.

I started Kindergarten that fall and thus began a routine that would stretch over the next six years: go to school, visit upstairs with Nana, go back down for dinner with my parents and two brothers, do homework, go back up to watch tv with Nana, and, finally, go to bed.

Long before moving to Canarsie, Zada, in 1941 bought and managed Miller’s Bakery on Rochester Avenue in Crown Heights. Nana worked in the bakery alongside Zada and the family lived above the store. A master bread baker, Zada’s challah and rye bread were outstanding, in fact he had trucks delivering his product across the borough.

By 1962 the neighborhood in which Miller’s once thrived was changing. Zada thought that the new immigrants, mostly from the Caribbean, would buy his high-quality rye, pumpernickel and challah. But, they didn’t. He didn’t change his product and he didn’t follow his customers to Long Island either. So, for the second time in his life, he lost everything – he went bankrupt.  At the age of 61 he went to work for a commercial bakery in Greenpoint, and moved his wife and two teenage sons to the upstairs apartment in our Canarsie home.

The door to Nana and Zada’s apartment was always unlocked. Each day when I came home from school, I dropped my stuff off in my bedroom, climbed the stairs, and let myself in. Though it was a two-family house, with separate apartments, I lived in it as if it was one.

Nana sat at a small, round marble table. The gold threads in the marble caught and reflected the light from the amber glass fixture suspended above it. The marble table top sat on a black cast iron pedestal. Both were unforgiving on misplaced elbows and knees.

“Hello, Sunshine,” her daily greeting to me as I opened the door. Nana’s arthritic hands were wrapped around a large teacup with steam rising. She lifted herself from her chair and shuffled across the yellow linoleum floor toward the refrigerator.  I settled into a chair next to hers.

“Zada brought home a chocolate crème pie.  Do you want a piece?” She was already removing the pie from the refrigerator shelf – she knew my answer. Zada often brought home surplus goods from the bakery – large black and white cookies, corn muffins or assorted pies, and I was always ready to indulge in a treat. As the refrigerator door swung closed, I saw Nana’s supply of insulin bottles lined up on the bottom shelf.

A small black and white television set sat on the table, tuned to the Dinah Shore show. The Mike Douglas Show came on shortly after. I ate my pie.

“Tell me about your day, Sunshine,” Nana asked.

“The usual. But, we have an assembly on Thursday and my class is putting on a little play. Maybe you could come?”

Nana sighed, “You know I’d love to, but my feet are hurting so much, there’s no way I could get there.”

My elementary school was not near the house, it was even a long walk to the bus.

“It’s okay, Nana. Maybe next time your feet will be better.”

We turned our attention back to the Mike Douglas show where the Rockettes were dancing. I adjusted the rabbit ear antenna so we’d get better reception.

“Lindale, bring me my aspirin,” Zada bellowed from the back bedroom. Another part of my daily ritual.  Zada worked an early morning shift and was resting in bed while I visited with Nana.

“Coming!” I would get a glass of water, go into the bathroom and pour three aspirin from a huge bottle and bring it to him. Zada was propped up in bed, his long legs crossed at the ankles, wearing his sleeveless t-shirt, boxer shorts and horn-rimmed glasses, reading the Daily News. He took all three pills at once and washed them down with a gulp of water.

“Did you have the chocolate crème pie?” Zada asked.

“I did, it was delicious.”

“Good.” I took the glass back and returned to the kitchen, my job done.

The four o’clock sun streamed through the slats of the shutters in the window. I sat in my cocoon with Nana until my mom called me down for dinner.

On any given day, my visit with Nana might have included one of her friends from the old neighborhood. Like Nana and my mother, they relied on public transportation or car service because they didn’t drive. The nearest bus to our house left them with a long, windy walk across Seaview Park.

Alex, the tailor, who had one leg shorter than the other and wore a clunky orthopedic shoe, trudged across the park. Alex repaired the holes in my winter coat pockets by replacing them with a colorful, satin smooth fabric. I loved the orange and yellow cloth so much I wished I could wear the pockets on the outside.

Dora, Yetta and both Goldies made the trek to Canarsie, too.  They climbed the stairs to Nana’s second floor home and settled in at the marble table, like I did.

Invariably they would bring a small trinket for me, a large chocolate coin wrapped in shiny foil, or a miniature stuffed animal. Nana smiled as they gave me my small treasure. After asking me what grade I was in and if I liked school, they went on to speak to each other as if I wasn’t there. I listened. Nana served tea and cake.

It seemed that Nana was a collector of lost souls. Some had physical problems, some would be considered spinsters, but no matter, they had a place at her table.

One day I took my usual place at the table and Nana shared an idea. Since my hair was a constant source of difficulty, she wanted me to try something different. A mixture of curls, waves and wiry frizz, my hair was entirely unmanageable.  This was before the advent of the myriad of gels, creams, sprays and treatments that fill an aisle of CVS today. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, fashion required girls to wear their hair long and stick straight. I was in a state of war with mine – and my unruly hair was winning.

Combing my hair after washing it was a nightmare for both me and my mother, and anyone who was within earshot. My hair was such a jumble of knots that it was nearly impossible to endure the process. I would avoid the whole thing for as long as my mother would allow.

Nana came back from a session at the beauty parlor with her silver hair teased high, each hair sprayed into submission.  Fortunately, that wasn’t what she had in mind for me, though that still might have been an improvement.

She explained that she spoke to another hairdresser at her salon about me. A new style had come into fashion, a shag, and they thought it could work. If I was interested, Nana would make me an appointment. I readily agreed.

After getting Mom’s consent, Zada drove Nana and me across Brooklyn to her beauty parlor. Nana was greeted with warm embraces and enthusiastic hellos. The smell of hairspray hung in the air. Most of the other patrons were Nana’s age.

A shag was a layered cut that allowed for curls. I watched as my hair was trimmed and styled. When it was done and I looked in the mirror, I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. For the first time, my hair looked good! The other people in the beauty parlor even complimented me.

Zada picked us up and drove us back home. We were excited to show everyone. Nana walked in with me to see Mom’s reaction. Mom looked at me puzzled for a long minute, brow furrowed, and said, “I have to get used to it.” Her face said she didn’t like it. I burst into tears and ran to my bedroom. As I left I heard Nana say loudly, “Feige, you don’t know your ass from your elbow!”

I had never heard Nana use a curse word – ever. And, I never heard her say a cross word to my mother. I also had never heard that expression – it conjured up an image that shocked my eleven-year-old self. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry – so I did both.

After a minute or two, Mom knocked on my bedroom door. “Nana’s right, Linda,” she said as she sat down next to me on my bed, gently stroking my back. “The cut looks great. I’m sorry for reacting that way. I was just surprised.”

“Ok,” I sniffled, “but I can’t believe Nana said that!”

“Well, she was upset with me. Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the haircut.”

“You really think my hair looks okay?”

“I do. Go upstairs and let Nana know you’re feeling better.”

I did.

 

A few months later I climbed those same stairs to my grandparents’ apartment, knowing Nana was no longer there. I opened the door and found Zada sitting at the huge mahogany dining room table in his suit and tie. I crossed the room and went to sit with him to wait for everyone else to be ready to leave.

I was wearing the same dress, brown with white polka dots, cinched at the waist, that I wore a month earlier to my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary party.  That party, with its frivolity and craziness (there had been a belly dancer, of all things!) seemed ages ago.

Zada looked at me and said, “Nana would be so happy to see you looking so pretty,” and his voice broke; he made a strangled sound. His shoulders heaved as he sobbed.  I didn’t know what to do. I had never seen a grown man cry. I stood up and ran back down the stairs to my bedroom with the sounds of his grief following me. I didn’t know how to comfort him or myself.

Two days before, I awoke to the sound of Uncle Mike calling to my mom. “Feige, it’s mommy.  She’s sick.” I heard his panicked voice in the hall outside my bedroom.  Then I heard rustling sounds as my mom got out of bed, “I’m coming!” the slap of her slippers on the linoleum as she followed him upstairs. I pulled the covers over my head, trying to block out any more sounds.

I couldn’t help but hear the voices calling back and forth, the frantic phone calls being made.

Despite my growing fear, I got out of bed and slowly climbed the stairs to see what was going on. I stepped into Nana’s kitchen and my Dad stopped me.

“Nana would not want you to see her like this,” he said.

“Can I make her some tea?”

“Okay, why don’t you do that.”

I did and when it was ready, I wanted to bring it to her, but an ambulance was just arriving. I put the cup down on the marble kitchen table and retreated to our apartment. When I heard movement on the steps, I went back out into the hallway to try and see Nana. I couldn’t see her face, just her wavy white hair as they carried her to the ambulance.

All the adults piled into cars and followed the ambulance, siren wailing. It got very quiet in the house. Mark, my 14-year-old brother, an unbelievably heavy sleeper, had finally awoken in the tumult. I explained to him what was going on. Steven, my oldest brother, was away working at a resort hotel in New Jersey for the Easter/Passover holiday break from school.

Mark and I didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Mom and Dad had returned the night before from their first ever vacation without us. They went to Florida, while Nana and Zada watched us, and came back happy and tan. That happiness lasted only a few hours.

They also brought back souvenirs. With nothing to occupy us but our worry, Mark and I took our new alligator-shaped water guns and chased each other around outside – down the alley next to our house, into the backyard and back to the front. Squirting each other, we laughed to relieve the stress. Eventually we tired ourselves out, went back into the house and just waited.

After what seemed an interminable amount of time, though it was still afternoon, we heard people at the door. As the front door was being unlocked, I could see my Aunt Simma through the sidelight, tears streaming down her face. My Dad opened the door and came into the kitchen.

“Come, sit with me,” Dad said. He ushered Mark and me to the couch in the living room.

He took a deep breath. “Nana died,” he said quietly.

“What happened?” I asked, “How??”

“We don’t really know – maybe a burst blood vessel or blood clot.”

Mark immediately burst into tears. How did he do that? How did he understand it so quickly? I was numb. Dad patted Mark’s shoulder and put his hand on mine. “It’s okay to cry.”

I don’t know if he said that for Mark’s benefit or mine. I’m sure he offered words of comfort but I don’t remember what they were.

I learned a lot over the course of the next week. I learned about sitting shiva –  the Jewish ritual surrounding death. I watched the mirrors in the house get covered with sheets; Mom, my aunt and two uncles and Zada each wore a black pin and ribbon to signify their loss; mourners used small hard stools instead of regular chairs. Each morning my uncles walked across the park to the nearest synagogue to say kadish. The house was filled with people, day and night; sometimes it felt like a party. Nana loved a party. It was strange – the happy chatter mixed with grief.

I learned that grown men do cry. Uncle Jack, Nana’s youngest brother, was sitting quietly one moment and then was overcome the next. I didn’t shed a tear, not then, not since. Nana was my comfort and heart, I felt a deep sadness, but tears would not come.

At the time, I thought Nana was old. She was 56. I am 58 as I write this.

The December Dilemma – Part 2

Note:  As a reminder before picking up my story where I left off, Santa Claus had come to the daycare center. I attended and gave Leah and Dan gifts instead of allowing Santa to deliver them and the daycare center agreed to form a committee of parents and staff to look at the holiday celebration for the future.

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Photo from the ADL

As Amy promised, a committee was formed. The committee decided that a survey of parents would be helpful in determining what steps to take.  Since I had a master’s degree in public administration and was on leave from a doctoral program in public policy, I had taken several classes on social science research methods, so I volunteered to help with the survey design and collate the results.

It’s funny but I remember very little about the survey itself – I don’t recall what questions we asked. I do remember, quite clearly, that several parents used the open-ended question to explain that this was a Christian country and if others didn’t like it, they could go back where they came from. For Gary and I that would mean going back to Queens and Brooklyn, respectively – which were (and are) still part of this country, though some might like to deny it.

I was shocked and hurt. While it was only a small number who expressed their view in such an extreme way, I hadn’t expected it. I was especially distressed that this represented views of people employed by the medical center, a group that I thought would be more enlightened.

Despite my dismay, I collated the results and prepared a summary. Frankly, I don’t recall what the survey said in terms of Santa Claus visiting, but I think it must have been inconclusive. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the information the survey did provide and give the daycare center administrators feedback on what to do for the coming year.

Once again, I left work and got on the bus to go to the center. A stop after mine another woman got on the bus and I recognized her as a parent from the center. I believe all parents were invited to attend the meeting, even if they had not participated in the committee. We smiled at each other and she sat down near me.

“Are you going to the meeting?” I asked. She nodded and we introduced ourselves and started chatting. I explained how Santa’s visit the year before had affected my family and that I was hoping that the center would consider changing how they celebrated Christmas. She nodded sympathetically. “I can see how that would be difficult,” she said.

We continued chatting as we got off the bus and found our way to the conference room. The meeting had quite a turnout – all the seats were taken. Extra chairs were brought in, not everyone could fit at the table.

The room felt tense to me. I don’t recall why I felt that way, but I know, even before a word was spoken, that I felt defensive. I told myself to breathe and relax.

The director and assistant director led the discussion. I reported the results of the survey, including sharing some of the disagreeable (to me) comments. Perhaps not surprisingly, the conversation devolved. I made my case: Santa Claus may be considered an American symbol to many, but not to non-Christians. Also, Santa can be seen at malls, community centers, churches, on television, etc., so if a parent wanted their child to experience a visit with Santa Claus, it wasn’t difficult to arrange.

The assistant director was outraged by my comments. If looks could kill, I would be dead. “Why should the children be deprived of Santa’s visit?” she asked, leaning across the table, accusation in her eyes. This was clearly a very personal thing to her, as it was to me.

“I was there when Santa came,” I reminded her, “and several kids were crying and others didn’t seem to care.” I was thinking that this should actually be the central point.

“I saw children having fun!” she retorted.

This wasn’t going well. I was getting angrier and angrier. At that point, I stopped participating.

The meeting continued for a bit longer. The director, to sum things up, said that they (the staff) would make a final decision about Santa and inform parents within a week. I left thinking they were going to keep things as they were, given that the staff seemed so invested in it and there weren’t very many parents objecting.

As I walked out of the meeting and headed back to the bus stop to go back to work, the woman I came in with stopped me. “It would’ve been much better if you could have explained it the way you did to me on the bus. You were too strident.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to cry. I told her I would’ve like to have done that, too. I kept walking.

I sat on the bus thinking about what she said. Was it me? Did I present my case poorly? I know I was wound up, and I probably did come across too strong. But, I couldn’t help myself. I felt under attack.

The daycare center kept its policy of having Santa visit. We went through the same process as the year before.

One day, as we approached Christmas, one of Dan’s teachers, who had been Leah’s the year before, asked us if we had gotten our Christmas tree yet. I said no and left it at that. What was the point of explaining it yet again? Was it willful ignorance?

Leah was to start Kindergarten the following fall. She would be attending School 16, the public elementary school a few blocks from our house. The Albany Jewish Community Center (JCC) offered an aftercare program with transportation from School 16. We looked at whether it made sense to move Dan at that point, too, so that they would continue to be in the same place.

The JCC daycare program was more expensive (Dan was three when we were considering this) – plus the medical center took the cost of day out of the Gary’s pre-tax salary. We had to considered whether we could afford to make the move.

It wasn’t much of a decision to make. We moved to Dan and Leah to the JCC that summer so they would be settled in before Leah began Kindergarten in the fall. In many ways, it was a relief. While Gary and I weren’t interested in putting our children in a Jewish setting for their education or care, it did make things easier for the time being.

It wasn’t the end of our battles over Christmas celebrations, we had a few in the public schools, but none so painful and fruitless as that first one.

Adventures with Aunt Clair

Aunt Clair, my father’s younger sister by two and a half years, may be short in stature, but she more than makes up for it with an outsize personality. One of my earliest memories was a weekend where she watched me and my two brothers while my parents were away. As I recall, we named her car ‘Bumpity Morgan.’ I don’t know if that name was a result of its poor suspension or New York’s potholed streets (or both).

I could be mixing different times together, but I recall Aunt Clair driving us in ‘Bumpity’ to the beach in the Rockaways. We were enjoying jumping the waves and collecting shells when the sky grew ominous. Aunt Clair poo-poohed it for a while and we continued to enjoy playing in the water and sand. Eventually it became clear that a storm was rolling in. We gathered up our things as quickly as we could and made a run for it. We got to ‘Bumpity’ just in time to avoid the lightening and fat raindrops. Wet and sandy, we climbed into the car and went back home, having squeezed out the last possible moments of fun. This was a very different approach from my parents. Mom and Dad would have packed up sooner, cleaned the sand off our feet and gotten back to the car with time to spare.

Aunt Clair, 81 years old now, lives in the same rent-controlled studio apartment in Greenwich Village that she has occupied for almost my entire life. When you think of a person who spent over 50 years, living on their own, in the Village, you might imagine someone with idiosyncrasies – you might imagine my Aunt Clair.

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Aunt Clair and me, June 2017 Photo credit: Mary Sulzer

She stands maybe 5’2” with curly white hair, there may be remnants of light brown strands from her younger years. Even 40 years ago, whenever I would walk with her, she would remind me that she had to take twice as many steps to keep up – she considered me to be tall! I didn’t think I had a particularly long stride, unless I was next to her.

Like her siblings, she has large, lively blue eyes. Like her siblings, she is razor sharp smart and insightful. She has a hearty laugh – my kids tell me we sound alike when we laugh.

Aunt Clair is feisty. My father loved telling stories about her toughness, even as a little girl. One involved an unfortunate dentist who told the young Clair that the procedure he was about to perform wouldn’t hurt. Well, it did. Clair was indignant, claiming that he lied, so she kicked him in a particularly sensitive spot and climbed down from the chair.

Making your way in New York City as a single woman wasn’t easy. I remember hearing about a mugging where Aunt Clair refused to give up her purse. I’m not sure how that ended up, I think she ended up bruised, angry and minus her pursue. Though my Dad admired her spirit, his message to me was not to do what she did in that case. He advised, if in a similar situation, to not fight back and risk serious injury. Aunt Clair didn’t (and still doesn’t) find it easy to back down.

I learned that I had a bit of her spirit when I had an experience going into the subway. It was 1980 and Gary and I were going down the stairs to the station, Gary was ahead of me. I had a backpack on and I felt it being jostled. Without thinking, I spun and said loudly, “What the fuck are you doing?” There was a young man with his hand on my knapsack. He looked startled and he turned and ran. Gary had stopped, but the incident was already over. I surprised myself, it was an instinctive reaction. I guess I was channeling my inner Aunt Clair.

Some of my fondest memories of time spent with Aunt Clair involved bicycling. Clair biked around Manhattan long before the city made any accommodations for riders.  She continued to bike, even to chemotherapy appointments when she was in her late 70s!

When I was college-aged and home for the summer, I joined Aunt Clair for a bike tour of Manhattan. This was no ordinary bike tour. We started in Central Park at midnight! Earlier that evening I went with my parents to see an off-Broadway play. We drove into the city from Brooklyn with my bike was strapped to their car. Aunt Clair met us at the theater when the show was over. We retrieved my bike and went to her apartment to drop my stuff off and then headed uptown.

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Photo credit: Snapshot for Sore Eyes – Central Park at Night

Hundreds of people were gathered with their bicycles at the Bethesda Fountain which is located mid-park at around 72nd Street. Central Park begins at 59th Street and stretches to 110th, south to north. East to west, it encompasses two avenues across (Fifth to Central Park West). It was odd to be in a place that most people thought of as dangerous at that hour. In those years, I wouldn’t have gone into Central Park by myself in broad daylight. It felt exciting and adventurous to be there amongst so many fellow cyclists.

We rode around the park, stopping periodically to hear about its history. We left the park and rode along the east and then west side of Manhattan. We rode through the theater district all the way down to the deserted financial district. The financial district felt like a movie set, with the skyscrapers seeming like two dimensional facades. It was so quiet, it was eerie. At that time, there were no residential buildings in the area, so there weren’t restaurants (other than those that catered to the lunch crowd) or clubs or theaters. It was a ghost town during off hours. We were able to ride in the canyon of Wall Street without other traffic, pedestrian or vehicular. I got up close and personal views of the architecture and sculptures in a part of the city I had only seen on a rare school trip.

Our tour concluded at sunrise at Battery Park. A hazy sun rose over the mouth of New York harbor. We rode back to the Village, got breakfast at a brasserie and ended the adventure with a nap at her apartment. Midafternoon she drove me and my bike back to Canarsie.

It was not my only adventure with Aunt Clair.  We took other bike rides together – on Martha’s Vineyard and in Boston, too. She introduced me to walking across the Brooklyn Bridge – we bought wonton soup and ate it midway across – long before it became a ‘cool’ thing to do. I’ve seen plays, movies and ballets with her. We’ve eaten many meals at wonderful hole-in-wall restaurants in her neighborhood. I learned so much about the city, and about being independent, from my time spent with her.

I was fortunate to grow up in an unusual family – made up of interesting, quirky and intelligent people. Aunt Clair’s feistiness, strong opinions and independent streak could sometimes create friction with other family members, especially my Dad (who shared some of those same qualities). But, I have been lucky to have her.

 

On Turning 58

Tomorrow is my birthday. I have ambivalent feelings about birthdays. A legacy of my Nana and Zada is my belief that one should celebrate whenever possible, since there is plenty of heartache in this world. I also believe that even though showing appreciation for the people you love should be a regular thing, and not dictated by the calendar, birthdays, holidays and Mother’s Day, etc., are good reminders. I don’t think there are that many of us walking around feeling over-appreciated.

On the other hand, in my family we didn’t make a big deal out of birthdays – only milestones, like 13 for my brothers and 16 for me. There is an amusing anecdote about my brother Mark’s 11th birthday. As noted in previous posts, my grandfather was a baker and he would bring home surplus goods from the commercial bakery where he worked. One year there was a birthday cake that hadn’t been picked up and it was fortuitous because it was also Mark’s birthday.  Zada brought home the large, day old cake with white icing. So what if it said, in pastel blue letters, ‘Happy Birthday Manny’ on it?  And, so what if it was a little stale?  It would have been a shame to let the cake go to waste. We lit the candles and sung a very off key version of the birthday song and had a good laugh about it.

There was a small part of me that wished we observed birthdays like other kids’ families. Some even stayed home from school for the day! That was out of the question in our family.

My birthday often falls on or near the Jewish high holy days. The story I heard was that my mother thought she was having indigestion from Rosh Hoshana dinner, when in fact, she was in labor. Apparently, her labor with me was fast and furious and I arrived before they had a chance to administer the anesthesia. In those days, they knocked women out when delivering babies. I emerged, all 9 pounds 15 ounces of me (!), without the benefit of her being unconscious. Poor Mom!

For the most part, I like the fact that my birthday falls during the Jewish New Year celebration – as long as it doesn’t fall on the actual day of Yom Kippur (our day of fasting). The high holy days ask us to reflect on the year we finished, make amends for our sins and consider how we will do better in the year to come.  As someone who is introspective to begin with, it is a good fit with my birthday.

The problem, though, with birthdays and the high holy days, is the other reminder they provide: time marches on and, as we get older, it seems to march faster and faster. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by our total inability to control it. The number 58 doesn’t mean anything really, I am the same person. On the other hand, I’m freakin’ old!

I look at my mom, who is still young at heart. There are real issues, limitations, imposed by aging, but if we are lucky enough to have a sound mind (or relatively sound :)), there is no reason we can’t be engaged and interested in the world. There is always more to learn. My parents were/are great role models in their continuous quest for knowledge and insight.

Having observed Yom Kippur this past weekend, I approach my birthday with gratitude. We were fortunate to have Leah, Daniel and Beth with us for the holiday – the first time in many years that we have been able to be together. Unfortunately, I also had an ear and sinus infection, but I reveled in our time together. As residue of the holiday, tomorrow I will still be thinking about how I can make myself a better person, a better family member, friend and citizen of this troubled world. And hopefully take a moment to celebrate, too.

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Shana tova.

Facilitation 101

Note: Names and details have been changed in the essay below to ensure the anonymity of the participants.

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One of my roles, when I worked for the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), was to facilitate board retreats. These sessions were designed to build trust and improve communication between board members and the superintendent, and to review their roles and responsibilities. Although I have retired from NYSSBA, I continue to take assignments to facilitate these workshops. I like to think that I can be helpful to boards that may be experiencing some dysfunction or just helping them improve their performance as a team, and a little extra cash doesn’t hurt either.

I’ve had some interesting experiences in doing this work. We usually begin with an icebreaker activity where we go around the room sharing some information about ourselves. We start with some straightforward stuff, where they grew up, how many siblings they have. And, lastly, they are asked to share their biggest challenge growing up. I often share the difficulty I had growing up with crossed eyes (which I have written about in this blog).

I had done this exercise many times. Participants usually respond in a range of ways, from offering very little by saying something innocuous, to making themselves vulnerable by sharing a private pain. In a recent workshop, an older gentleman, who was the first of the group of 12 to share, responded in a way that I had not heard before.

He began, “I’m not quite sure how to put this.” I got a little nervous, not knowing what kind of experience he was going to recount.

He went on, “I was an excellent ballet dancer.”

In the words of my mother-in-law, this I was not expecting.

My first impression of him would not have led me to associate ballet dancing with the short, 50ish year old man sitting before me. Without casting aspersions, he presented as squat and not noticeably graceful. He didn’t hold himself in that elegant, regal way that dancers typically do.

I also didn’t know where he was going with this. Being excellent at something isn’t usually a challenge, but then again, perhaps his experience related to gender stereotyping, or people like me making assumptions based on appearances.

All these thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I listened to his story. Hopefully I maintained a neutral facial expression, as all professional facilitators should.

He went on, “I recognized I was better than most and I needed to learn to hide that knowledge.”

Wait, what exactly was his challenge? To learn humility?

“I’ll give you an example….” He went on to explain that in high school he had a run-in with some members of the football team, who were teasing him about his ballet dancing.

Now the anecdote started to make sense, though, he certainly started the telling in an unusual way.

“There were three or four players, including the quarterback, in the room before class started,” he explained. “hassling me about being a ballet dancer. I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I get to hold an attractive girl, whose costume leaves little to the imagination. You, on the other hand, put your hands behind the butt of another guy! Who’s the gay one?’ That shut them up.”

There were 12 of us in the room, sitting around a rectangular conference table. Everyone was silent. I think we were all nonplussed. I’m not sure if he was expecting a response, but after a brief pause, he continued.

“Later, when the school day ended, I was heading to my locker. I saw the guys from the football team at the end of the hallway. We made eye contact. I left my stuff in my locker and turned to leave school and head home. The football players saw me turn and they took off, chasing me. I ran.

It was a distance to home and there were some hills. One by one the football players gave up, until only the quarterback was left chasing me. I was just outside my house when I stopped and faced him. We looked at each other. I said, ‘Let’s make a deal – you don’t do anything to me, you leave me alone, and I won’t tell anybody at school that I, a ballet dancer, outran the football team!’ After all, that would have embarrassed them. And, I would have done it, too. He agreed and that was the end of it. They never bothered me again.”

As he finished his story, he had a self-satisfied smile on his face.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was the story true? Was this a story he told himself? I looked quickly around the room to see if anyone wanted to say anything. After a bit of an awkward silence, I smiled and said, “Joe, thank you for sharing, sounds like a challenge you handled. Jill, how about you go next.”

I felt a mix of emotions. I was a bit incredulous, it all seemed too neat, almost scripted. But, it certainly wasn’t appropriate to question him. I was also offended by the casual sexism and homophobia in the way he relayed the story. Though this was an experience from many years ago, and talking that way was understandable and would’ve been acceptable then, there was nothing in his telling that showed any insight gained over the years. He was quite pleased with himself.

I also felt sad. I should have sympathized with him – it must’ve been difficult to be a male ballet dancer all those years ago. It likely still is. But, in how he framed his story and in his telling, he buried the pain of it. And that made it difficult for me to respond with genuine empathy.

Interestingly, as we went around the table and others shared, it was as if they, in response to his approach, revealed their childhood challenges without masking their pain. It was quite remarkable actually – in that small group, three had been abandoned by their mothers and one had a parent who died when he was in high school. Two revealed that they had a parent who was an alcoholic. I was reminded, again, how much private pain there is in this world.

The point of the exercise is to build trust among the team. I wondered if it had the desired effect.