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.

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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.

Continuing Conversations

I open my eyes and orient myself to the room. I have been going back and forth so often between Albany and the city, I forget where I am. That’s right, I’m on the sleeper couch in the living room in Manhattan. Fortunately it has a good mattress.

I reach for my phone to make sure I haven’t missed any calls or messages. I briefly scroll my Facebook feed.

I turn to look out the large picture window. I notice in the corner that the sun is casting a perfect shadow through the lead glass vase that sits on a small table in the corner. I look closely at the shadow – the rope that wraps the top of the vase is projected in detail onto the wall. The imperfections in the surface of the glass are illuminated, as well. I imagine Andrew Wyeth could paint this and capture the beauty of the vase, the light and the shadow. I wish I could paint it, but since I can’t, I roll out of bed taking my phone. I take two pictures before the light changes. I want to share this image, this lovely moment.

 

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I consider posting it on Facebook, but think better of that – what would be the point? Really, does the world need another pseudo-artistic photograph? Instead, I text the picture to my two kids and my husband. Leah is in Seattle, so it is just after 4 a.m. there. I know she puts her phone on silent when she sleeps so it won’t wake her. Dan and his wife are on an early morning flight to New Orleans for a long weekend so he will get the text and photo when he lands. Gary is already at work in Albany. I am in our apartment in Manhattan, looking after my 82 year old mother, asleep in the bedroom, recovering from lung surgery.

I text: I don’t know if this photo does it justice, but woke up to see this beautiful shadow on the wall. Wanted to share it.

Gary responds with: Very nice but how about a photo [if] your smiling face.

Where is autocorrect when you need it?

I text back: 🙂

I am a lucky woman. Gary often responds with sweet comments.

A while later my phone dings. Dan’s text reads: On the ground in Atlanta. Transfer in an hour or so. Very nice picture, Ma.

Two hours after that, Leah texts: Really cool shadow, Ma!

And so it goes. Many days the four of us are in conversation in this way; brief moments of sharing. Sometimes one of us doesn’t chime in, but we know that we will all have seen the exchange at some point. It helps me to feel connected to them despite the miles between us.

I still miss them.

New York City Wanderings

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Sculpture at Astor Place. I loved and still love coming upon sculptures in public spaces in New York City. This one is near the subway station exit at Astor Place.

Growing up in Brooklyn I was always excited to go “into the city,” which meant going to Manhattan. Technically all five boroughs comprise New York City, but we knew Manhattan was really The City. Not everyone shared my excitement. There were many people in the outer boroughs who were as unfamiliar with The City and its attractions as people from say Oshkosh. My father fell into that category. He wasn’t unfamiliar with it, after all his two sisters lived there, but, somehow he failed to see the charms of the traffic, grime, and general hassle of getting around Manhattan. My Mom, on the other hand, focused on the museums, theater, and creative energy. I inherited my mother’s perspective.

Over the years I relished wandering around the different neighborhoods within Manhattan. I remember my first trip without adult supervision. My next door neighbor and friend, Deborah, and I were 12 years old when we plotted our adventure. Our plan was to explore Greenwich Village, stopping at the many bookstores that were there at the time. We studied the map of the subway system and reviewed our plan with my mom. We took the bus to the LL, the LL to Union Square and then switched trains to the 6 and got off at Astor Place. We were careful to read the signs so we got on the subway headed in the right direction. We were proud when we made it to Astor Place without any detours.

We started up the stairs to exit the subway station and we heard chanting from the street. We couldn’t make out the words, but it didn’t sound like the Hare Krishnas (a religious group – cult? –  that would sometimes dance and sing on city streets). Deborah and I looked at each other and wondered what we were going to see when we got outside. When we emerged into the daylight we saw a demonstration going on across the street. People were carrying signs and marching around in a circle. In keeping with our instructions for visiting The City, we didn’t get involved – we didn’t stop long enough to really look at what the protest was about. We were delighted by it, though. Our first trip into the city unaccompanied and we arrived at a protest! In that day and age (1972) protesting was a daily occurrence. It could have been women’s lib, civil rights, the Vietnam War or a labor dispute. It didn’t matter much to us – it was exciting, but we were also a little nervous. So, we got our bearings and kept walking.

Much of what I liked best about going to the city was walking aimlessly, taking in the scenery, looking for interesting shops, and people watching. Of course some neighborhoods in the city weren’t what they are today. SoHo wasn’t filled with art galleries, trendy shops and expensive restaurants. In fact it was unlikely that we would have ventured south of Houston Street, since the Village was filled with coffee houses, head shops and other interesting stores. It wasn’t expensive to walk and window-shop, there was lots to see.

In the early 1970s the MTA (the city transit authority) ran bus routes called culture loops. It was like the ‘hop-on, hop-off’ buses that many cities offer today, but it was the cost of a single fare. I took full advantage of the service and rode the different loops many times, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend.

When I was in college I worked summers and breaks for a perfume company that was located on 57th and 5th Avenue. I did secretarial work and some bookkeeping. I was also a messenger of sorts. The owner of the company did quite a lot of business in the Middle East and he traveled to Dubai and Kuwait pretty frequently. There was paperwork that needed to be delivered to the applicable country’s consulate, located near the United Nations, which is as far east in Manhattan as you can go. The perfume company gave me cab fare, which I would pocket and walk instead. I took a different route each time – walking as quickly as possible. I covered probably every street between the office and the different consulates – usually about 1.5 miles each way.

I still love walking in the city. My most recent visit took me on a trek from the Flat Iron district to and along the Hi Line.

The Hi Line is an elevated walkway on the site of old railway tracks that were reclaimed as public parkland. It winds its way on the west side of Manhattan from around 12th to 34th Street. I have walked the path a couple of times before, always delighted to find sculptures and other art installations throughout the walk (see pictures below from my recent walk).

After 30th street the path of the Hi Line swings out toward the Hudson River, looping around the Hudson Yards, where trains pause or sit before entering or leaving Penn Station. A few trains rumble slowly into position, most sit silently waiting.

It was desolate on that December day. Very few people were on this part of the path. The somber clouds, the gray water, the browns and grays of the buildings created a bleak but beautiful landscape. The cold air stung my eyes. I heard the slow screech of train wheels. I heard sea gulls crying. I heard other sounds, too. Was it music?

Plaintive, elongated notes from stringed instruments wove through the ambient noise. I looked around. Was I imagining it? I finally noticed loudspeakers affixed to poles. I was not having an auditory hallucination! Notes harmonized with the trains and the gulls and the traffic of the West Side Highway. It was a powerful soundscape. Eventually I found a small plaque that identified the music (Lachrimae by Susan Philipsz) as part of an art installation. It perfectly captured the sound of loneliness amidst civilization.

You never know what you will see or hear when wandering around New York City.