Taking responsibility for irresponsibility

At recent social event I retold the story of how I had been evicted from my first apartment, all of my belongings being taken by the NYC Marshal to a spot under the Brooklyn Bridge that is now probably a hot dining spot.  My daughter M heard this tale for the first time.

“How did this happen?” she asked.  I told her that I didn’t pay my rent.  I lived in the Diamond District on 47th between Fifth & Sixth (which now has some of the most kitschy branding in the very tasteful post-Bloomberg midtown).  It was a  supremely odd place to live, there being few if any other dwellings in the neighborhood.  This was 1974 NYC, one block from the Times Square of the “Taxi Driver” era.  My building housed several retail jewelers on the first floor.  My apartment shared the second floor with the largest garnet distributor in the country, solemn men in Orthodox garb for whom I did not exist.  There were  three other tenants of dubious nature, one with whom I somehow had some vague connection that escapes me now.

The owning syndicate had a management agent and my $125/mo rent did not substantially add to their bottom line.  Thus, my disregard for rent payments was not a big focus.  Occasionally, I would get a call at work (I had no phone in the apartment, which people found shocking) from Mr. Farrell asking me to please get my payments up to date.  And I would.  Sort of.  And then I wouldn’t, and like an assignment that is past due that causes you to cut classes, thus compounding the damage, I would continue to dig myself further into arrears.  I would picture Mr. Farrell, maybe 10 years older than I, sitting at his beat up desk, trying to get this errant young Irish girl to get things right for months on end.  I felt bad about letting him down.

I saw where this was heading and found a new apartment, armed with unpaid rent for damage deposit and first and last month’s rent.  I came home one night after cocktails with friends at the St. Regis, a favorite after office spot, and saw that the locks on the door had been changed and a notice posted on how I could retrieve my personal property.  I didn’t cry.  I didn’t call my parents.  I refused to ask anyone for money because I was simultaneously unashamed and fully aware that I had caused this calamity and so I had to deal with it.

I did have the new apartment, but absolutely nothing else.  I was forced to recruit the driver who reported to me for routing printing deliveries to meet me at the Bridge so I could pick my things up and take them to my new place.  He was befuddled, as were the men who were the caretakers of the belongings of the beleaguered as we met in the shadow of Roeblings’ masterpiece.  “How did this happen [to a nice girl like you]?”  “I didn’t pay my rent.”  No bad landlord (ok I had no mailbox, the heat was iffy, and the hallways were never cleaned), bad tenant.  I somehow liked to think that because I stood up and took my punishment, dragged no one else into this except my friend who had to house me over the weekend, that this was acceptable.

I moved my stuff to my new apartment, met my future husband and got evicted again.

Take me to the river

All of my life, with exception of time out for college and other misbehavior, I have lived within walking distance of a river.  As a child my dad would quote a friend, Fate Marable, who was the son of the eponymous jazz pianist, that there were two types of people:  river people and everyone else.  I can’t imagine what exactly that meant to the senior Marable since he led bands including one with young Louis Armstrong on riverboats throughout most of his career, an experience certainly more colorful and fraught than my own.  He died when he was in his mid 50’s.

I would guess that most Pittsburghers are river people, whatever that definition is.  We grew up at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.  This will sound familiar to sports fans, since it is repeated at every televised sports event that takes place there, sports championships having replaced steel as the major product of the city.  The phrase will usually be accompanied by a beauty shot of downtown Pittsburgh and its Northside stadia taken from the neighborhood where I grew up, Mt. Washington.

The outstanding nature of that view was slowly being realized beyond our neighborhood just about when I was starting grade school.  First there was the Grandview Theater, a classic neighborhood theater with a quarter admission and odd white swirling decorations against a red backdrop closed and reopened as LeMont, a fancy dining establishment. This transformation was roundly suspect in the area, with stories of rats through the aisles of the movies house not lending itself to French Service, no matter what the renovation.  It was so fancy that when Premier Khruschev visited Pittsburgh and we proudly lit up all our buildings so he could enjoy the both the beauty and the steel production value of our city, he pronounced it a waste of electricity.   At eight, this was first time I heard anything that might indicate that power of any kind could be a finite resource.

Surrounding  LeMont was the neighborhood shopping district known as ‘upfront” which held the Incline and a dive bar called appropriately The Hut (both still standing), my grandfather and uncles’ drug store, a state liquor store, a cobbler, a couple of hair dressers, two gas stations, a less dive-y bar, an ancient pine floored A & P, the dry cleaner, a couple of butchers a pizza shop and smaller markets (all of which, along with others I cannot remember, long gone). My favorite among these was the bookie joint that had an ancient jar of mayonnaise languishing on a shelf in the window, its only formal nod to any other type of commerce. Each of these locations deserves at lease a paragraph if not an entire encyclopedia on their history.  But I’m talking rivers now.

On the river-facing side of Grandview Avenue aside from the shopping district was housing, not particularly grand housing, but every single resident there and elsewhere in the neighborhood, knew and appreciated the glory of the view they had.  My grandmother lived with my aunt and uncle and her family, with a backyard that lurched perilously downward as it faced the Three Rivers.  A few doors away my school’s convent was there next to the “new” high school, which also had unequaled views, most of them were reserved for the Blessed Virgin Mary statue and excluded the students except for May crowning.

As a young child there was an open field on Grandview between our house and upfront.  Field is rather too grand a noun, it was a lot, a large one by our standards. Through it you could gain easy access to “over the hill” which were forbidden precincts to all Mountie kids from the time the area was built.  There were all sorts of perils: uncovered caves where coal had been mined, steep cliffs, annoying boys and another type of travelling people, hobos who would ride the rails at the bottom of the hill next to the river. My mother never mentioned the last , but did warn about some “people.”  My mother to her enormous credit was the first politically correct person I knew.

But in the field itself were our look out rocks.  They weren’t the stuff of children pretending to be settlers or natives looking out over the amazing fact of three rivers converging.  By our, I mean my family’s.  There were three main ones right next to each other at the far end of the lot.  They extending beyond the relatively flat field and thrust out over the hillside.  My favorite was the long, pointed one.  It rose higher than the other two and jutted out further.  It was also the flattest.  It would be there that we would bring sandwiches and go watch the action along the river. There was plenty of space to run around and just nearly defy remonstrances to not go any further than a certain sumac tree (weed that it is, one of the few I could identify as a youngster).  There were very few times and places that we were elsewhere together as a family.  Our common outdoor experiences were barbeques in the back yard which required endless trips upstairs for condiments, drinks, plates, etc; and the evenings outside as everyone’s parents listened to Bob Prince call the Pirates games on the front porches and we played street games with the dozens of boomers living there.

The picnics on the lookout rocks were relaxed and sweet.  We learned the meanings of the signals from Gulf Building with the weather forecasting beacons atop it, Point Park with its ancient Block House was easily identifiable.  The endless bridges: our favorites being the 6th, 7th and 9th Street Bridges, all the same design, but somehow slighting poor 8th street.Tiny tug boats would ply the river piloting more than a dozen barges filled with coal and coke for the steel plants that lined the shore from downtown Pittsburgh miles up the Mon Valley. I see us there with Daddy talking about this and other lore, much of it apocryphal,  Mummy relaxed and laughing.  Each of us loved it there, it giving us space and a sense of  wide open communal enjoyment that was a rare commodity in our often cramped lives.

So yes, take me to the river, because this is one of the places the river takes me.

The House I Grew Up In

We lived on the low side of a hilly street in a neighborhood where that was one of the only two choices.  The high side usually came accompanied with any alley from which you could access your house, and your back yard was above your house.  Our house was closely nestled between its immediate neighbors.  The Foleys to the one side had their path to the back yard on the same side as we did, so there were  probably about eight feet between us.  The only thing that separated our house from O’Donnell’s on the other side was their narrow walkway, which dropped down about six feet below our front porch.  This provided a great location for leaning across the path while threatening those who went beneath. It was like London Bridge meets The Billy Goats Gruff.  It was quite satisfying when I was first able to lean over and reach; satisfying and an enormous relief that I didn’t plunge down those six feet onto the concrete below.

The largest part of our house was the basement. Under the porch was the coal cellar that held remnants of its original purpose with hunks of smudgy coal.  It was small and dank, fitting its name, and held very little because of its inhospitable aspect.  Mum would store some sort of preserved  holly wreath in there, but I remember it as the only empty room in our little house.  To get to the coal cellar, you had to step up from the dirt cellar.  The dirt cellar was a more useful spot, there was an actual light switch rather than a pull chain.  When turned on it revealed the stone foundation walls a couple of beat-up cupboards and the Christmas decorations.  It acted as an inconvenient pantry and held the fuse box.  It was called the dirt cellar because the floor was dirt.

Then there was the furnace room, whose purpose is obvious as well.  What you would not guess at is the enormity of the mechanism it housed.  A galvanized steel behemoth that had once used the aforementioned coal, it had been retrofitted to use natural gas.  It still had the heavy door where the coal once had been shoveled inside of which, where now there was a ring of small blue flames.  From this base extended exactly three broad pipe extensions that lead to the registers: one each in the living and dining rooms and one in the hall way upstairs between the bedrooms.  There was little to do in this room beyond walk around the furnace to get to the laundry room, again self-descriptive, with the added oddity of a beautiful green porcelain oven and the mangle with which I had a love/hate relationship.  The big problem with the laundry room was that the pipes were susceptible to freezing despite its massive neighbor in the next room.

Just like the early sky scrapers in New York, our house got smaller as you went up.  You entered the house from the front porch into the living room.  Between it and the dinning room was a stairway and a 4 x 4 area where the phone was kept on a succession of ugly wire holders with spaces for the phone books below.  The dining room I always thought was large. In addition to an upright piano, it held a table for the six of us, a gorgeous old buffet that had belonged to Grandma Madden, a window box and our refrigerator.  The refrigerator was in the dining room because the kitchen was too small to fit it.  It was too small to hold much more than sink,  the Magic Chef stove and a small porcelain  table.  It was absolutely stretched to its limits after dinner when it would also have to accommodate a few bicker sisters complaining to each other about the inadequacy of the clearing, rinsing or washing of the dishes.

Also off the dining room was the bathroom, both of these rooms having been added when plumbing arrived.  As such neither of them had heat, which was more of a problem in the bathroom.  It was solved by one of my favorite objects in our house: a small iron gas stove; it, too, called a register.  It was about two feet high and a foot in either other direction.  Even then it was old-fashioned.  It was open on the front with an angled interior wall that was ridged like a washboard.  Where it met the back of the stove were about  a dozen tiny jets that you lit with a match.  The bathroom was a special spot, being the only one in the house where we had the right to close the door and be left alone.  Having six people in competition for that spot could present problems among us, but there was nothing more wonderful than drawing a bath (there was no shower)  on a winter’s night, lighting the stove and entering into that  damp room  It would be perfumed by the hard milled soap my mother always ordered from the department stores and lit by the little flames from the stove.  If you could manage to successfully have your bath without interruption or demands to “hurry up”, it was blissful.  Actually it was anyway.  Space and solitude being in short supply.

Up the narrow stairway were the two bedrooms.  The front bedroom over the living room was our parents’ room, even occasionally occupied by both of them.  In the back the four of us girls lived, mostly in bunk beds, sometimes in just twin beds in between the clothes that didn’t make it to the  closet.  In the ceiling of the closet was a push through hatch that led to the “attic”.  My mother put the absolute fear of God (which at the time was substantial) into me about going into the attic because there were no floors and we would fall through the ceiling above the stairs.  I was not particularly timid, but the visions that this conjured of feet flailing out of the ceiling combined with the difficulty of gaining entry into this unknown and dusty spot convinced me.  It is another thing that has stuck with me from my childhood.  As an adult, I lived in our house for nearly 20 years and I never went into the attic.  But as a realtor for the same amount of time, I had no problem forging gamely ahead into basements.

Take that, Father Sullivan

I grew up in a two-bedroom  house with four sisters and the regular allotment of parents.  We all attended the  local Catholic School and Church along with nearly all of the others of our neighbors, most of them first and second generation Irish, Italian, German or Poles.  The ethnicities had more colorful names in the ’50’s and ’60’s of my childhood.  Yes, the good old days.

Pittsburgh has pretty cold winters.  Our little house had three registers to supply heat.  My mother would routinely close off the one in the tiny hall between the two bedrooms to save on heat.  Our church and our elementary school were old and drafty with high ceilings and huge windows that required poles to open and close them.  The classrooms were bright and airy, the Church soaring, but tough to heat.

We learned this lesson of the cost of heat long before the “energy crisis”.  We learned this at four or five.   January 1st is a holy day of obligation, one of the eight days in the year where it is required that Catholics attend mass. Our pastor, Father Sullivan,  was never the most compelling sermonizer.  I really cannot remember that any of them were all that great, but he was the weakest in a poor lot.  To this day, all my peers can remember Father Sullivan’s Circumcision Day sermon, because it was the same every year.  It was when he would deliver the Financial Report in painful detail to the dutiful parishioners honoring their responsibility to attend Mass.

It might have been that our fiscal year was aligned with the calendar year.  Or, it might have been that Father Sullivan choose this moment when the adult congregants would be hung over and feeling guiltier than usual, and the children knew that they were facing a long winter with no more breaks.  Whatever his rationale, while we all sat there hunched in our heavy woolens staring at the gold fleur de lis painted along the neo-gothic arches, we got the message that it was damned expensive to heat this church and the schools we attended.  Of course, being Catholic, this was somehow our fault.  Forget original sin and Adam and Eve, keeping us warm in winter was a burden the parish could hardly bear.

The nuns, ever adept at reinforcing the lessons coming from the priests, got the message,  too.  One oddly warm early spring day, the boiler in our elementary school couldn’t be turned off.  All the glorious sunshine spilling into our classrooms heated them to a miserable level.  Our custodian Mr. Link was doing his level best to stop the beast of a boiler from spewing more heat into the classrooms to no avail.  As we sat, pink-cheeked and over-heated we pleaded with Sister if we could please open the windows.  There was a conference among the nuns in the hallway where it was decided that no, we couldn’t let all the unnecessary heat being produced literally fly out the windows. That would be WASTING HEAT!!!  As a concession, we did get to have a drink of water from the hall fountain and put our heads down on our desks for a few minutes before we returned to our lessons.

I shouldn’t then say that Father Sullivan was not a compelling orator, I guess.  I took this lesson and my resentment of having it hammered into me the first of every year when I went away to college.  I sat in my new dorm room where the heating unit was located under the sliding window.  It was warm in there and rather than trying to determine how I could turn the heat off I opened the window and called out to the heavens, “Take that, Father Sullivan.”  Not an ecologically defensible position, but a moment of urgent satisfaction.

Dead Women’s Furs

I have never had a position on furs, or leather or meat for that matter.  I have a muddle-headed view that it’s ok to slaughter, eat and wear animals while acknowledging the ecological and moral hazards of same.  I think furs are beautiful, warm and practical (especially if you live in Russia or Montreal), but never really aspired to owning one.

I actually came to owning a fur young in life.  During winter breaks in college I waited on tables at a Stouffers in Pittsburgh across the street from Gimbels which held a Saks boutique.  I knew every item in that little shop and watched as this lovely, massive stenciled rabbit fur “maxi coat” went from sale to clearance.  When it hit $150 and my tips did the same, I bought it.  It was gorgeous and fun and warm. That coat took me from my senior year through my first year in NYC until the damage wrought by indifference rendered it too disreputable to wear in midtown.  It had served me well, even though it was not an adult fur.

As my three sisters and I lived our respective lives in NYC and beyond, I watched as they all bought their furs.  Each had theirs made: the transitional vest/jacket, stroller, and full length.  While staying warm in the inhospitable Northeast winters was the primary focus, having the fur seemed important, too.  Our mother had an interesting skunk jacket with massive shoulder pads that hung in what passed as a cloak closet in our house (the stairway to the basement), so it wasn’t as if we were bred for this.

I never had the thousands of dollars ready for the coat.  I know better than to say that.  During that time, I has spent many thousands on dinners, dance lessons or private schools for my kids.  Maybe I never felt that cold.

Then my oldest sister Kathleen died.  She and I were the most alike physically. I was often seen as similar with our dark hair and hazel eyes and fair complexion.  As we aged, our mutual tendency to heaviness as compared to the slighter figures of our other two sisters aligned us further.  Thus when it came to her fur, it came to me.

My kids chaffed a the idea that I was wearing dead creatures, with blind indifference to being carnivores that only the young or the obnoxious can master.  Me, I felt embraced by Kathleen when I donned her coat with “Kathleen Malloy” embroidered on the lining.  It was lovely for me to wrap myself in the barrier she had put between herself and the cold she so hated  as she would arrive at my house for Thanksgiving and Christmas, removing an elegant scarf only when assured that the outdoors were behind her.

Not that long after that a dear friend’s mother died.  She had many furs, including a casual jacket with a lush mink lining and an elegant hood that had been made for her.  This is a terrific piece of clothing, in green, a favorite of mine.  And here is where it started to become strange for me.  The fact was that neither of these coats fit me all that well.  Sure, for a hand me down, they did well.  But you should wear a fur, it should not be wearing you.

Oh, Tannenbaum

M and I got our Christmas tree in the snow today.  I love doing that chore in seasonally appropriate weather. Cutting the tree down is the ideal, of course, but if you’re going to a lot, it is best to do it in the snow. My kids’ father and I had many great Christmas tree stories: the $125 tree and the balky cabby, it should have been we who balked at spending that decades ago; the tree decorating party when one couple spent the night necking on the sofa and everyone was so eager to avoid them that the part of the tree near them was bare of ornamentation.  The best was when our friend Doug  found a titan of of the forest on an Upper East Side sidewalk.  We arrived to our brownstone apartment with a mammoth, perfect tree in the hallway.  It must have been from a record label party because it had an ornament made from the cover of a Bruce Springsteen album, thus the tree became our Bruce spruce.  I still have that decoration with the young Springsteen smiling as he hangs from a silver ribbon.

After having kids, we started going to a place in Connecticut to cut our tree, until they closed.  Still we went to Connecticut and got off at the same exit.  We decided to take a left where we had previously taken a right.  This was, actually, something we had seen a family we knew do a few years before as we traveled north in tandem on the Taconic Parkway.  We then were holding our collective breath that they would not be heading to OUR farm and indeed they weren’t.  Now we were the potential interlopers.

We followed signs that promised “cut your own” and drove over a pitched and muddy drive through “the largest collection of fire trucks” in the world? in disrepair?  It was bizarre and completely compelling.  “Look, there’s one from NYC,” “There’s one from Rye”, and on.  Interspersed with these hulks covered in snow were the occasional El Camino with a decade’s worth of weeds in its hold or a Rolls Royce with no back wheels sitting atilt with the grille missing its Flying Lady.Our previous farm offered wagons to get your tree back to the base camp.  This one did not.

So it was there that I returned with my two younger children when their dad got irate at some poorly received behavior and  he refused to go on this annual journey.  After our usual prodding and pleading in attempts to change his mind, we nodded to each other and off we went.  When we arrived at the vehicle graveyard things did seem different.  Yes, there was more snow, but no one seemed to be around.  We stopped at the hut that stood before the tree farm & was told that there were no wagons and “ya don’t want to go out too far because ya’ll just have to lug it back.”  Yes, I stoutly responded, I understand; no we don’t need a band saw, we brought our own.  AND our own twine AND our own clippers.

We drove to the furthest spot to park.  It wasn’t snowing but they had a good 6″ on the ground.  We walked, and opined on various candidates and chose one.  Then the challenges began.  Ok,  “who wants first cut?”  No one really cared.  We took turns trying to get a purchase on the tree with the saw, and it was not easy.  Finally when we made a decent cut, I stood and pushed the tree to one side as M put the final effort in and  the tree came down.  We all congratulated each other on our good choice and excellent work.

I  looked out at how far away we were, not from our car, which was  a significant distance, from the hut where we would pay.  I then, to my everlasting shame, started to heave my breath deeply and whine.  “Oh, we’ll never get this damned thing all the way over there.  What the hell was I thinking? Why did I…” Somewhere in the middle of this rant, M and A asked me where we had to go and they, 14 & 11, each picked up one end of the tree and set off towards the hut.  I stood at the top of the hill in this strange landscape populated by trees and their remnant stumps with moldering hulks of steel in the background and watched my two indomitable youngsters take off over hill and valley.  I could hear them laugh between themselves and as the sun lengthened their shadows I watched as our tree wobbled its way up and down erratically heading its way to the hut.  I was so grateful to them for the humor of what I witnessed as well as for their tenacity in the face of their mothers’ incapacity!

Then we got to the hut.  As I said, I had the materials to put the tree on the roof.  We baled the thing ourselves; but when I said I need help tying it to the roof, the guy said, “we don’t do that.”  I was stupefied.  We had done everything: cut, carried, baled and put the tree on top of the car and I was being upended by my inability to tie a knot..  It would be a long highway drive back to our Westchester suburb .  I needed a secure set of knots.

The man reluctantly returned to us after a 30 minute wait.  I didn’t tip him as much as I would have 20 minutes before.  What I did was vow that I would never be vulnerable [to any man] because of an inability to tie a knot again.  A week later I saw a gift box in a store,  that had various lengths of rope and a book titled, “How to Tie a Knot”.  It is one of the few books that made the cut in my move last year.  .

What to call the father of my children

I have been separated from the man I married in 1980 for over two years. We’ve sold the house. I’m living in a third-floor walk up in the suburbs,and have a full time job.  I have one child I am still putting through college, another temporarily living in said apartment. The oldest is living in San Francisco and getting married in Marin County next September.
What am I thinking about? What to call the man I’m married to, both now and when we are finally divorced.
I have always loathed the nomenclature “my ex-“. Decades ago it seemed to me like a failed attempt at sophistication in addition to being linguistically dubious. I remember having the difference between ex- and former- explained to me when modifying elected offices: ex- if having lost an election, former if being retired from office. I’m not even sure that’s the case but it has affected my thinking. Ex seems fraught, like something being spit out of your mouth. You have X’d this person out of your life like days on a prison calendar.Granted former doesn’t the same insouciant single syllable snap as ex, but it does seem to be a bit more respectful.
Then we got into the time when you didn’t have to have been married to have an “ex”. So now the phrase has no meaning whatsoever. I was with a friend recently who is separated from his wife, and recently broken up with a girlfriend. The phone kept ringing and he said, “it’s my ex.” It meant nothing, which was fine if he didn’t want me to know which of his at least two exes whom I knew about that he was referencing. Why say anything?
So what do I call the father of my children? For people who have known me before the last two years, I can use his name.  For the kids, he can be “your father.”  I said “Daddy” once a few months ago and my two younger kids sort of glared and me and started laughing.  Old habits die hard.