The Wilds of Canarsie Revisited

Note: I originally wrote this piece about how I felt growing up in my particular enclave in Canarsie and posted it on the blog over a year ago. I have edited it with the thought that I would weave it into the longer narrative that I am creating. The edits are intended to allow it to follow the story of the haircut Nana took me to get (which is part of Nana’s Table).

I have added new material at the end that reflects on some of the insights that I have gained regarding perceptions of safety through my interviews of others who grew up in Canarsie. I have been reaching out to talk with others of my generation who grew up there. So far I have interviewed a dozen people. I hope to interview more. Please contact me if you would be interested in sharing your perspective.

The ‘x’ near Canarsie Park is the house where I grew up – so you can see it in relation to the rest of Canarsie

As a girl growing up in the late ‘60s in New York City, aside from the impossible beauty standards imposed by Madison Avenue and popular culture, I grew up in the shadow of the murder of Kitty Genovese. That story of neighborly indifference, of violence, of the callousness and danger of living in New York City, was part of the air that I breathed. I now know that the story is far more complicated than originally reported; there weren’t as many witnesses as the newspapers said at the time, calls to the police were made and a bystander did actually help her. [A recent documentary, The Witness, released in 2015, explored this ‘new’ information]. But, that wasn’t the story that was embedded in my psyche at the time.

Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens in March of 1964. The legacy of that crime was that I believed that people in New York City wouldn’t get involved, and that New Yorkers took minding their own business to a dangerous extreme. Add to that the nightly litany of violent crimes reported on Eyewitness News, and my fear of victimization was palpable. Perhaps it became a self-fulfilling prophecy for all New Yorkers.

As a consequence, I never liked when my parents went out for the evening, unless Nana and Zada were home. I would hear creaking, rustling and other assorted sounds – the usual sounds a house makes – and I imagined someone was trying to break in. It was hard to distract myself though I tried by watching television with the volume turned up. Of course, some of the television shows, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Twilight Zone, played on story lines of break-ins and bad guys, so that strategy failed.

The feeling of menace was heightened by my physical surroundings in Canarsie. With the park on one side and “the weeds” on the other, it was easy to imagine sinister people lurking. “The weeds” were the marshy landfill that separated our block from the Belt Parkway. When I played with Susan, one of my two friends in the neighborhood, we would ride our bikes on the street that bordered the weeds. We would dare each other to run in and run out, a dare I was not willing to take.

Our neighborhood was also in the flight path to JFK. Airplanes would skim over our roof. If you were on the telephone you had to pause in your conversation because there was no chance of hearing or being heard. If you were watching TV you had to hope you didn’t miss a crucial piece of dialogue. If anyone slept over, the roar of the jet engines took getting used to. My cousin Ahri, who grew up in Manhattan (not exactly a bastion of quietude), asked me how I could stand it.

It wasn’t just the sounds of Canarsie that could be problematic.  If the wind was right,  from the southeast, it brought with it the smell of one of the city dumps. One might imagine the breeze carrying the scent of the ocean, since we were so close to it, and it did that, too. But, the dump was adjacent to the Belt Parkway, just east of our Rockaway Parkway exit, and the odors emanating from it trumped the fresh smell of sea air. The mounds of trash rose like a small mountain range on the south side of the Belt. Naturally I had a sensitive nose.

The dump also attracted scores of seagulls. The detritus and Jamaica Bay beyond were quite an attraction for all kinds of birds. The cries of the gulls were part of the soundscape of our Canarsie neighborhood. I needed only to see a few scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds to make the frightening connection.

There was a fine line between the pleasures of the park, the beauty of the gliding gulls, the earthy smell of the marshes and ocean air, and the menace those same features held. All the elements, sights, sounds and smells, conspired to heighten a sense of foreboding, at least in my imagination.

Based on my interviews, so far, it seems that I was unusual in my perception of danger, my generalized fear of violence. Most of the people I have spoken to felt very safe in Canarsie. Some suggested that changed with the summer of the “Son of Sam,” which was in 1977, and introduced a level of fear that they had not experienced before. Some recounted specific instances of threats of being accosted, mostly at John Wilson Junior High School, or particular places they would avoid (for example, Seaview Park after dark, or particular bus routes where they felt threatened), but those didn’t shake their general feeling of safety in and around their block. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to commented on their strong sense of community, especially on their block or in their building in Bayview – that neighbors looked out for each other. I did not grow up with that sense at all. Fortunately, I had my grandparents, uncles, brothers and parents to provide that support.

In addition to discussing fears of violence, I learned a great deal from my conversations about race and ethnicity and perceptions of the boycott of schools over the busing plan.  I will continue to share what I’m learning as I go along. I also hope to put a piece together that summarizes it. I welcome comments and feedback either here on the blog or via email. Again, if you’d like to be interviewed, email me at

A Brooklyn Sojourn

Imagine my surprise when I opened my email a week and a half ago and found out I was a semifinalist for the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize! I couldn’t believe it. I submitted a piece, Nana’s Table, which you can read here, to a contest sponsored by the Brooklyn Film Arts Festival.

It was Friday night, December 15th, and I was sitting at the island in my kitchen, with Gary, Daniel and Beth. Daniel and Beth had just driven up from New York City to spend the weekend with us. We would be celebrating Hanukkah the next day with more of the family coming to our house. We were chatting easily, I was mindlessly playing Text Twist on my computer, when a new email popped up. I saw the subject line ‘Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize.’ I swallowed hard and opened it immediately. When I saw that it said that I was a semifinalist for the prize, I held up my hand and said, “Sorry to interrupt, but you’re not going to believe this!” I proceeded to read the email to them. They were as excited, or more so, than I was.

The email explained that semifinalists were invited to read a portion of their story at an event scheduled for the following Wednesday evening (December 20th), which coincidentally was my father’s birthday. He would have been 85. Maybe it was a sign.

The reading would be held at St. Francis College, in Brooklyn Heights. I did a quick check of my calendar and saw that I had a hair appointment, but that could easily be changed. There was nothing to keep me from going. Dan and Beth said they would come, too. The email asked for an RSVP, so I sent a quick response saying I would attend. With more than 20 people coming for our Hanukkah party the next day, I didn’t have time to give it more thought. I had salads to prepare, potatoes to peel and presents to wrap.

Saturday passed in a blur, busy from the moment I woke up until I went to bed that night. My brother Mark had driven down to New Jersey to pick up my mother so she could attend the party. My in-laws were able to come too – in fact we planned to celebrate my father-in-law’s 95th birthday. Cousins, in-laws, nieces and nephews mingled and ate potato latkes. I misjudged the amount of food – usually I have too much. Not this time. After the bowls of tuna and egg salad and the platter of lox were ravaged, I made more, and sent Mark out on an emergency lox run. In my family we don’t need a beer run, we need more lox.

Lying in bed after the party, exhausted, I started to think about the logistics of the next few days. I decided since Mark had schlepped to Jersey and back to get our mother, it was only fair that I should drive her home. In an unfortunate bit of timing, we had promised the use of our New York City apartment to a colleague of Gary’s whose daughter was having surgery in a city hospital on Monday. So, I couldn’t just drive Mom back and stay in the city for the week.

After leaving my mom at her place in Freehold, I had time alone in the car – my first private time since Friday night. I could finally think about the upcoming reading and what it meant to me.  I was surprised at how validating it felt. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I think sometimes, in an effort to protect myself from future disappointment, I don’t allow myself to take pleasure in accomplishments. The refrain in my head usually includes messages that devalue whatever it is I did.  In this case, between feeling proud of myself (there I said it!), I thought things like: Probably nobody good entered the contest. Or, I have no chance. And, I hope I don’t embarrass myself. My brain ping-ponged back and forth.

The reading at the college was free and open to the public. I went back and forth in my mind about inviting people to it. Should I post something on Facebook? I looked to see if the Brooklyn Film Festival had it listed as an event that I could share. Finding nothing, I decided I didn’t feel comfortable creating something. I felt like I would be imposing on people. Or maybe I just didn’t want to be disappointed if no one came.

I drove back to Albany. I did my usual things, every so often getting hit with nerves at the thought of appearing in front of a bunch of strangers and sharing my story. Though I presented programs and trained small and large groups during my previous professional life, this was different. This was sharing a piece of myself.

In order to simplify things, Gary and I decided I would stay at a hotel Wednesday night. We didn’t want to ask his colleague to leave our apartment, he was already dealing with a stressful situation with his daughter. I was able to get a good rate at the Marriott near the Brooklyn Bridge and we decided I should think of it as a treat. The hotel was only a few blocks from St. Francis College on Remsen Street, it would be convenient, too.

I took Amtrak down to the city on Wednesday and arrived early in the afternoon. I hopped the A train and found my way to the hotel. Fortunately, they had a room available even though it was before check-in. I made myself comfortable, took a shower and practiced my reading. Although I didn’t put anything on Facebook, I did email Merle and another long-time friend who lived in Manhattan, Steven, to invite them – making it clear that I knew it was short notice and I would understand if they couldn’t make it.

Steven responded that he would be happy to come and he would meet me there. Merle wrote that she would come, as long as she had recovered from the bug she was battling. Happily, she did and she came to the hotel at about 4:00.

I got a text from Aunt Clair that she would come, too. I had a small but mighty rooting section: Dan, Beth, Aunt Clair, Merle and Steven. I knew my mother, Leah and Gary would be sending positive thoughts even though they couldn’t physically be there. I felt very lucky to have so much support.

Merle and I left the hotel and met Aunt Clair at the Burger King down the block. We walked together to St. Francis College. As we were about to go in, Dan and Beth joined us. We found our way to the Maroney Theater on the 7th floor. There were a few people in the theater setting up the podium and microphone. It was a small theater with a performance space at the front and rows of seats upward from there.

We took seats in the middle, not too close to the front, but not too far back either.

More people started to trickle in, including Steven. We all chatted and joked, and I tried to relax while taking it all in.

A young man distributed a sheet of paper that turned out to be the program.


I was slated to be the second reader of ten. I studied the other nine names and titles of their stories. I looked around the room – there was a wide array of ages, races and sexes. I wondered who the writers were.

The program was supposed to begin at 7, but we had arrived early. About five minutes before 7 the same young man who passed out the program asked for our attention. He wanted to take attendance to see if the readers were present. Several were still missing. We went back to chatting and waiting, more people arrived. The theater was getting pretty full.

At 7:10, it was decided that the program should begin regardless. The young man stepped up to the podium and tapped on the microphone. It was working. I was relieved because my voice does not project well and I have difficulty sustaining any volume. He introduced the first piece, but the woman wasn’t there. That meant I was going first.

I took a deep breath and went down the aisle stairs and took my place at the podium. I read Nana’s Table, fumbling only once or twice over words. I couldn’t see the audience very well with the white spotlight on me, but I looked up every so often trying to make contact with my family and friends. The room was very quiet, as I read. It felt like people were listening intently. Toward the end of my reading someone’s cell phone went off, but they silenced it pretty quickly. I didn’t let it distract me.

There was applause when I finished and I returned to my seat. And just like that, it was done. The young man introduced the next writer. Different stories of Brooklyn unfolded. A range of experiences were recounted. A young African-American man described growing up in the projects where gangs dominated, but he found community there, too. A Latina wrote movingly about her mother’s and sister’s struggles in Sunset Park, sadly known as ‘Gunset’ Park at the time. Another shared her story of taking a class at Brooklyn College with Allen Ginsburg, the beat poet.  A retired police officer, who like me started writing when he retired at age 55, told his story of deep regret at not helping a childhood friend who grew up with him in Coney Island. Two other stories, like mine, focused on relationships with grandparents. A picture of a borough filled with people of different ethnicities, but similar pains and struggles, was painted.

After all the stories were read, all the authors were invited to the front. We received a nice round of applause and then the emcee announced the winner. The retired cop won the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize for 2017. I can’t lie, I was a little disappointed. But, the whole thing had been an enriching experience. Dan told me several times how proud he was of me. Leah sent texts with the same message. I knew Gary and my mother were eagerly awaiting hearing the result. Their collective pride in my effort was very meaningful to me.

Hearing the other stories, sharing mine, confirmed that I was on the right track, to borrow a phrase from my father-in-law. I was doing what I should be doing.

Everyone with me had enjoyed the evening immensely. Steven said, “Sign me up for your next reading.” I smiled and thought, “I hope there is a next reading.”

It was late by the time it concluded. Dan and Beth, who had work the next morning, gave me hugs and went back to Manhattan, as did Aunt Clair. Steven, Merle and I went out to dinner at an old-style Italian restaurant on Court Street. After enjoying several glasses of chianti, warm Italian bread and a variation on eggplant parmigiana, we parted ways. I went back to the hotel.

I woke early the next morning and took a walk. I hadn’t been in Brooklyn Heights for many years. I found my way to Brooklyn Bridge Park, which didn’t exist the last time I was in the neighborhood. It was a sunny, brisk morning. I marveled at how beautiful it all was. I counted my blessings as I walked.



Where were you? The Blackout of 1977

Who was batting for the Mets on July 13, 1977 when the lights went out in New York City?*

Photo from the New York Times

I can’t say I remembered the answer to this trivia question, but I do have some vivid memories of that evening. I was in the shower in my house in Canarsie. Home from college for the summer, working temp jobs in the city during the day, that particular evening, I was home alone. My parents were visiting my grandparents in Florida. I have no idea where my brothers were – but I know they weren’t around. Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were living in the upstairs apartment in Canarsie, and they were keeping an eye on me while my parents were away (I was 17 years old). That particular evening they were visiting friends in Rockland County and weren’t home yet.

It was unnerving to have the lights to go out while I was in the shower. I shook off visions of Psycho and climbed out of the tub, slowly, carefully. Once I opened the bathroom door, there was enough ambient light to find my way to my bedroom just across the hall. It was about 9:30 pm, but not fully dark since it was still early in the summer. I got dressed quickly so I could check outside to see if my neighbors had power.

I went out on the front porch and saw that all the houses and street lights were dark. I went back inside and found some flashlights. The phone rang. It was Aunt Barbara telling me that they were on their way home. I was grateful for that. I was also relieved that the phone was working. I felt a bit less isolated. I think I spent much of the next hour on the phone, talking to the guy I was starting to see, waiting for Uncle Terry and Barbara to get back. Eventually they made it. Things were quiet on our block. The same could not be said for other parts of the city, though I didn’t know that at the time. It was probably a blessing that I couldn’t find a transistor radio or turn on the television.

After my aunt and uncle got back, the three of us sat on the porch for a while, trying to capture the scant breeze. Eventually we gave up, went in and tried to get some sleep. New York City was suffering through a brutal heat wave, the demand for power and some unfortunate lightning strikes caused the blackout.

When I woke in the morning, the power still wasn’t on. That meant I couldn’t go to work! I was able to make a plan to go to the beach with the guy who I was on the phone with the night before. I had my parent’s car, since they had flown down to Florida. It was a 1972 Impala, a behemoth, it was like driving an ocean liner. The car was so big I had a difficult time maneuvering it. A couple of weeks earlier I went on an outing in the Impala with my friend, Merle. I drove first to Kings Plaza, a huge mall in Brooklyn, where Merle got out of the car to help me negotiate the parking garage ramps which seemed entirely too small for the mammoth car. Then we went to Island Park to visit our college friends. We were like Lucy and Ethel on that trip, Merle trying to give me directions from the handwritten notes I had taken over the phone from Dianne, while I tried to stay calm in the traffic on the Belt and Sunrise Highway. Growing up in Brooklyn in a one-car family, I didn’t drive often. Merle and I made it to Island Park and back – I only bumped a garbage can while making a u-turn – we were otherwise unscathed. But, we were exhausted from laughing so hard.

Despite my driving deficiencies, my guy and I made it to the beach in the Rockaways. It was late morning and the heat was already oppressive. There was a lot of traffic on the Belt Parkway for a Thursday after rush hour. We weren’t the only ones with the idea of getting an extra beach day in during the workweek. It was one of those summer days that wasn’t sunny, but we had to squint because of the glare.

Listening to the car radio, we heard about the looting and violence of the night before. People took advantage of the power outage to smash windows and break into stores and generally commit mayhem, especially in downtown Brooklyn. The city, which still had not recovered from being on the brink of bankruptcy, had a reduced and demoralized police department. It was also the ‘Summer of Sam.’ It wasn’t just the heat and humidity that hung in the air and left us feeling unsettled. The threat of a serial killer was another ingredient in an already roiling pot.


It was an odd time for me, a time of transition. Although objectively the atmosphere in Canarsie was more fraught than in my years as a child and adolescent, I was not as anxious. I had more friends and was embarking on my first romantic relationship. I had a long way to go to quell my insecurities, work still in progress, but I had made a turn for the better. The blackout of 1977 didn’t derail me.

*Lenny Randle. If anyone knew this, you win a prize 🙂

My Dream of Manhattan

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.

Ode to Central Park

Views of Central Park in mid-October (photos by me!)

Oh, how do I love thee?


I love the juxtaposition

Nature and civilization

Bird calls and sirens

Steel and glass skyscrapers and majestic ancient trees


Ducks and turtles paddling the reservoir

Birds swoop

Stately pre-war apartment buildings stand guard to the west

Museum mile beckons to the east

Commerce to the south

Harlem to the north


Flora, fauna and culture abound

Beauty in all its forms

For the taking


People of every age and size

Of every skin color

Of every socio-economic level


Running, walking

Laying in the grass

Cycling, rowing

Reclining on a park bench


Riding in a pedi-cab

Or a horse-drawn carriage

Planking on a pedestrian bridge

Graceful moves of tai chi on the meadow


Children’s laughter

So many languages

The wind in the trees

Honking horns

The rotors of a helicopter slicing the air


Let me count the ways.



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.

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.

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.


Decisions, Decisions

It was the summer of 1980 and I had just graduated from college. I would start graduate school at Columbia in the fall. I planned to work at The Perfumer’s Worskhop for the summer, the same place I had worked for the past three summers. The Perfumer’s Workshop was a company that created and distributed a few different lines of perfumes and essential oils, very high-end products that were sold only at the best department stores. Prior to working there, I had not even heard of these department stores. Suffice it to say that Princess Luciana’s Tea Rose, their biggest seller, was not offered at Alexander’s, or even A&S, and A&S was a fancy store, in my estimation.


I got the job through a friend of my father. I learned a lot in my time at The Perfumer’s Workshop. Aside from learning the names of the high-end department stores across the country (Nieman Marcus, Bullocks, Carson, Pirie, Scott, etc.), I saw a whole different world in that office. Mr. Bauchner, the owner, was always tan and dressed in the latest men’s fashion. He frequently jetted off to Dubai and Kuwait – exotic places I had not heard of until then. I hadn’t seen ‘air kisses’ before – visitors were greeted with pecks on the cheek that seemed to deliberately miss. Mr. Molyneux, the ‘nose,’ came to the office carrying his seemingly miniature Yorkshire terrier in his arms like a baby. (Note: The person who developed the scents at a perfume company was called ‘the nose.’) He had a light green velvet suit that he favored and sometimes he wore a beret.

It was a very small company; all the men were addressed as Mister. The office manager/controller was addressed by her first name, Eve. All the women, and there were only a few, were called by their first names. At the time, this seemed appropriate.

They offered me a permanent job, but I could not see my future there. I knew, and I was honest with them, that I didn’t want to be a bookkeeper and I had no interest in the world of high fashion and all that entailed. They were very gracious about allowing me to continue to come back for summers and school breaks.

In August of that summer the Democratic party was holding its convention at Madison Square Garden. My parents’ good friend, Sonya, was very involved in politics. She was, in fact, married to a congressman (Ted Weiss) who represented Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Sonya had connections and knew I was interested in politics, so she arranged for me to get an interview to work at the convention.

On a hot, humid July day I made my way from the Perfumer’s Workshop office on 57th and 5th to the interview at the Statler Hotel across from Madison Square Garden. I anticipated a swanky Manhattan hotel; it wasn’t. It had clearly seen better days. A threadbare carpet led me to a hotel conference room where I was briefly interviewed. It was clearly a formality. They told me they would be in touch with more specifics. I can’t say that I left feeling excited because I didn’t know what the job entailed, it all seemed pretty loose. The drabness of the hotel colored my mood. I went back uptown to the Perfumer’s office thinking that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, despite being underwhelmed by the interview process. In the meantime, I would continue working at the perfume company until the convention.

During that summer, my brother, Steve, and his wife, Cindy, were temporarily living in London. They were there for six months and that summer was in the middle of their time there.

Cindy and Steve allowed me to ‘apartment-sit’ at their lovely place in Jamaica Estates in Queens while they were away. Living there cut down my commute time dramatically, compared to Canarsie, and not having to move back in with my parents after college was a big plus. Unexpectedly, it also provided an opportunity for Gary to ingratiate himself with my father.

One evening I was on the phone with Gary. He was at his parent’s house in Rosedale, another neighborhood in Queens. We were chatting happily when Gary said he needed to go (literally) and he would call me back. We hung up and I went about my business. I think about half hour or 45 minutes went by when there was a knock on the apartment door. “Who’s there?” I ask, as I looked through the peephole. I see Gary and I open the door. Not only is Gary there, but his brother, Steven, is standing to the side of the doorframe. They both have baseball bats!

“You’re okay?” Gary asked. “Yes. What’s going on?” I opened the door wide so they could come in. “You didn’t answer the phone!” Gary exclaimed, sounding exasperated. “What do you mean? It didn’t ring,” I responded. I went over to the phone and picked it up and to my surprise there was no dial tone.

Turned out, Gary, having answered nature’s call, tried phoning me continuously for ten or fifteen minutes, getting progressively more nervous when I failed to answer. We had been on the phone and he knew I had no plan to go out, or even get in the shower. So, in a move that sealed him in my father’s heart forever, he and his brother jumped in the car and drove (maniacally, if I know Steven) over to make sure I was all right – bringing baseball bats to mete out justice, if need be.

We surmised that something must have happened with the phone after I hung up and I didn’t realize it had gone out of service.  They were quite relieved to find that I was safe and sound. Gary and Steven went back home satisfied that all was well.

Steve and Cindy’s time in London provided the family with an opportunity to see England and there was discussion about visiting them. Pam, Cindy’s sister, wanted to go and we explored traveling together, but the timing didn’t work. I was betwixt and between because I needed to make money over the summer, so I didn’t want to cut short my time at Perfumer’s Workshop. I also wanted to work the convention and I would be starting graduate school early in September. But, how many opportunities would I have to go to London and have a place to stay for free? The trip would cost me only airfare and meals. But, how many opportunities would I have to attend the Democratic National Convention?

It was a tough decision.

After weighing the merits of each, I decided to go to London. I have vivid memories of that trip. I probably spent more time with my brother Steven during that week than I had in my life up to that point, or since. We took Brit Rail to Bath and saw Roman ruins and where Jane Austen lived. We went to museums and saw a play, Mousetrap. We also snuck into the second act of the play, Norman Conquests! I did some exploring on my own, too.

Most memorably, though, we took a one-day trip to Paris. When I arrived in London, Mark and Pam were concluding their own visit. (As mentioned previously on this blog, my two brothers married two sisters. Mark and Pam were engaged to be married in the summer of 1980.) We overlapped for one-day, quite an auspicious day. My plane landed at Gatwick, I took a train to Victoria Station and found Steven waiting for me. We went to their apartment, met Cindy, Mark and Pam and dropped my stuff off. We left immediately to catch a bus. We took the bus to the ferry to cross the channel (the Chunnel didn’t exist yet). We arrived in Paris as the sun was coming up. We had a little over 12 hours to tour Paris on our own before we caught the bus back to London.

I have a picture in my mind’s eye of us crisscrossing Paris, trying to see as much as possible in our limited time. My sister-in-law, Cindy, has very long legs and covers a lot of ground quickly and efficiently. Steven, with years of experience as her partner, matched her pace. I lagged behind them, but kept them in sight. Mark and Pam were quite a bit behind me. We trooped through Paris in that alignment. The Eiffel Tower, the Tuileries, the Pompidou Center, the Champs de Elysees, and the Arc de Triomphe. Mostly we just walked by the various sites. We did go into the Louvre. I couldn’t believe I was seeing so many iconic places.

It was exhausting! We met up with the others from the bus at a restaurant where we had dinner before boarding for our return. I sunk into my seat, beyond tired, barely able to keep my eyes open. Next thing I knew, there was a bit of a commotion and some male passengers, including my brothers, were coming down the aisle of the bus. It was pitch black as I looked out the side window, but there was a huge bonfire ahead of us blocking the road. There was some shouting in French. I didn’t understand what was going on. I heard my brother Steven explaining to the bus driver that he had previously traveled back to England through Ostend (in Belgium), which wasn’t too far. We were scheduled to get to the ferry in Calais in France, but we were thwarted. Steven was giving the driver directions so we could find another way back!

I came to understand, later, that French fisherman had created a blockade at Calais so that boats could not cross the English Channel. The bus driver was planning to ram the bus through the bonfire! Fortunately, the passengers, including my brothers, convinced him that going to Ostend was a better option. The blockade later spread to other ports. It was a dispute about fishing rights. We made it to Ostend and got on a ferry back to England. It turned out to be the last ferry for something like two weeks! We couldn’t believe it. Thank God Steven had a great sense of direction!

We got back to London. Mark and Pam returned to the United States. I slept for a day and then went about touring London and some of the surrounding areas. I didn’t regret my choice, though I believe that 1980 convention may have been the last time there was a contest on floor. Ted Kennedy challenged President Carter for the nomination, though he gave up after the first day.

A couple of months after I returned from my London adventure, I got this letter from Zada for my birthday. The letter included another story – his experience at the 1920 Democratic National Convention! In true Zada-fashion, it is a little off-color, but it was my 21st birthday, after all. I may have missed my chance to attend a convention, but, unbeknownst to me, Zada had attended one 60 years earlier.

October 3, 1980

Dear Linda,

At one time the age of maturity was ’21.’ Now I understand it is ’18.’ I think that you have matured a lot earlier. You have proven this not only to my satisfaction, but to everybody around you. We all are proud of the net result.

Although we will wish you the best in all succeeding birthdays, this one according to custom, is a check, that we hope you use to your advantage. I had vowed that I would send a check to grandchildren up to the age of 21. So far, I have lived up to my vow.

I promised you that because you missed the Democratic National Convention I would write of my experiences at the 1920 Democratic Convention that was held at the old Madison Square Garden, at that time situated on 23rd and Madison Ave. I will set the scene so that in your mind you will realize that this has happened 60 years ago. The morals and mores of the times then were a lot different than they are today…But if a U.S. president can say publicly, “I will whip his ass!”, what I have to relate is mild in comparison.

I was 16 years old, and on the street where we lived there was a young man who had worked with the Sells-Floto Circus. His boss there was in charge of the concessions at the convention. There was a need of hawkers (salesmen). So naturally he asked a few of us if we would be willing to work at the Garden in this capacity. And, as you know, I always possessed a yen for all kinds of adventure. I eagerly accepted. What I am going to relate is only one phase of all the important events I encountered. Some day, if fate decrees that we are together and if you are interested, I will recount the events that made such an impression upon me.

The delegates are assembled in the vast auditorium, there is a mixture of lady delegates, but predominantly they are mostly of the male species. As you know they have come from all parts of our great country. There has been a deadlock between Alfred A. Smith, governor of New York State and Williams Gibbs McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury and also a son-in-law of President Woodrow Wilson. The battle raged hot and hectically. Neither one would accede to the other. It was necessary for the boys in the ‘smoked filled rooms’ to break the deadlock so they came up with an alternate choice which I will name later. As you have seen when a candidate is announced, all in his favor will start parading around the arena shouting and singing to the blaring music, the chant, We want Smith or whatever candidate is nominated. This repeated time and again for as long as their voices hold out.

The political ‘big wigs’ had come up with the governor of Ohio, namely James E. Cox. He was nominated and the band began to play an Ohio song (which I vaguely remember a few lines like “Round on the ends and high in the middle, that spells Ohio.). As they were told, the delegates arose with the cry, We want Cox! We want Cox! We want Cox! We want Cox! And above all the tumult, as if by prearrangement, all the male voices and the band stopped dead. All you could hear from the various locations, female voices shouting the slogan We want Cox! We want Cox! We want Cox! And with the same suddenness, realizing the double entendre of what they were saying, they ceased. And for a moment or two there was a complete hush over all of Madison Square Garden. Followed by gales of laughter emitting from the throats of 20,000 voices. You really had to be there to realize the impact of the occasion. So that is all for now. I promise that someday I will tell you little vignettes about Franklin D. Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker and Isabelle Jewett Brown of S. Carolina. All that I witnessed at the 1920 Democratic National Convention.

Have a happy birthday and a healthy new year.

Lots of Love

Laura* and Zayda**

*Laura was Zada’s second wife. He remarried when he moved to Florida. From that point on he always including her in the close.

**We called my grandfather Zada, a Yiddish term. I believe this is the only letter I have where he spelled it with a y. Since it not an English word, and Yiddish uses a different alphabet, there is no correct English spelling. Our family most commonly used Zada, but I have seen many variations.