NOTES FOR THINGS TO NOT FORGET


Opening my datebook to mark something down today, I found a note to myself written in June of this year which said:

Today in the grocery store I saw the very ancient lady I sometimes see there with her pushchair. She’s so old and so fragile looking and bent at the middle, and she’s the most adorable old lady. I always wonder about her. Today I stood right next to her while she very painstakingly counted out yogurts. She read everything written on each container. I felt a huge swell of love for her. She looks about 100. Everything about her looks to be made of bird’s bones. She might be Chinese but I’ve never heard her speak so I don’t know. I hope this won’t be the last time I ever see her. 

I hope I did not, by writing that last sentence, make it come true because since that day I haven’t seen her and I would like to see her again, even if I never say anything to her. I was away from the city for a lot of the summer and whenever I come back from having been gone, the first thing I do is try to see the people I know and like, even by chance in the street. For a few weeks before I left, I’d been meeting my friend Agosto Machado every so often on a bench in a little park on the West Side. It was always the same bench, and Agosto was letting me interview him for my little magazine called Housedeer. After each little interview session on the bench, we went for a walk together and to at least one art gallery to look at pictures.

I like Agosto very much, and he’s someone I’ve seen all around town forever. I’ve seen him onstage in plays and waiting in theater lobbies and walking in the streets, and nothing is nicer than to mark down in my book a certain day at a certain time when Agosto will be waiting on a certain bench. He has a magical way of telling what he remembers about New York and when he described standing on the street and looking through the windows of Schrafft’s on Fifth Avenue, long ago, to watch the ladies with their shopping bags having lunch—taking off their gloves to eat their sandwiches and afterwards having, with their coffee, a cigarette—and the feeling it gave him, looking in, I felt that I had been standing there with him. And I think quite a lot of people would feel that way, because he tells his memories like movies. I remember my friend Debbie talking about Schrafft’s, and going there in the 1950s with her grandmother for lunch as a special treat, having come into old Penn Station on the train from New Jersey. Agosto remembers old Penn Station too, and he and Debbie both described the particular atmospheric charm of the great station—in the echoes of cups and saucers from the coffee shops and the voices announcing trains coming and going—as the marvelous entry to the city itself.

This afternoon I met my friend Hank O’Neal in the Malibu diner on 23rd Street. The Malibu never seems to change and it's always full of people. When Hank ordered a dish of ice cream the waiter asked, “One scoop or two?” and when he brought me a cup of coffee I thought of Old Penn Station. Certain New York diners just feel the way they always have, and I think part of it is the sound of the cups and saucers. Hank entertained me with stories about personal things that you can say to certain people if you’ve known them long enough, and he told me that the reason he never gets sick is because he grew up playing in mud puddles and eating the mud.

Last night I met my friend Susie for a lecture on West 13th Street, all about how to cleanse oneself of impurities in the body. Afterwards we stood on the sidewalk and chatted, the way people have forever here, pausing for fire engines to pass and watching the world go by. I thought of Susie’s mother, who is very old now and lives in Chinatown, telling me how it felt to her when she first came to New York long, long ago, coming out of one of the stations in the snow and finding her way downtown. Was it Penn Station or Grand Central? She was a famous star of the Chinese Opera, Sui Fong Wong, and a few times I had lunch with her and Susie both in Chinese restaurants on little streets, where Madame Wong ordered all kinds of delicacies that weren’t on the menu and told stories. She loved going to the movies in the big theaters of Times Square, and she remembered the billboard advertising Camel Cigarettes with a man blowing what looked like real smoke.

During one such lunch, an old lady passed our table using a walker, and after she had left, Madame told us that the lady was herself an old actress (Who used to be gorgeous! You’d never guess it now, but she was gorgeous! She had love affairs with this one and that one, and it was scandalous!) I wished I’d taken a better look at the old lady before she disappeared out the door, but by the time I looked again, she had been swallowed into the crowds of people outside. Walking home after saying goodbye to Susie on 7th Avenue, I realized that I would very much like to see her mother again. Once home, I made myself a note to ask Susie about visiting Madame Wong. Because Madame is in her nineties now, and the thought occurred to me that when someone one likes is in their nineties it’s probably good to not put off visits. Actually, putting off visits to people one likes of any age is just stupid.

September 28, 2014

THE PRETTY WINDOWS


Loren MacIver's Greenwich Village Night II
Yesterday on my way to the farmer’s market to buy greens, I went into a little antique shop I like on 17th Street, which is reached by a long narrow passageway lined with mirrors. The prices are always reasonable in that place, where every so often I buy something  that I need. Last autumn when I realized one day that because of Honey I only had one unbroken glass left, I bought six fine little drinking glasses there. I keep them on the top shelf in the kitchen behind a wooden chopping block. Honey can jump up on it, and she likes to reach up and pull things off the shelves. I realized too late that one of her favorite things to do was to grab for the glasses when they were on a shelf she could reach and watch them crash to the floor. Then she couldn't leave the box of salt alone. It’s the same kind of salt I’ve used all my life, Morton Salt, in the round blue box and the girl with the umbrella on the label. Most days when I came home I'd find it lying on the floor of the kitchen. Honey is like having raccoons. But I can never stay angry with her for long and I know she gets bored in the house during the winter when I can’t take her outside. Now that spring is here I’ve started taking her out again and the box of salt is staying on the shelf.
 A few times I’ve taken Honey into the little antique shop on 17th Street because the guys who run it always have dogs lying around snoozing. Everyone in the shop likes Honey when she rides in on my shoulder but I hold onto her tightly in there with all the delicate, glittering things displayed upon the shelves reflected in her nosy green eyes. When I went in yesterday, by myself, I saw that in the little office at the back of the shop a green and white bird was sitting in a pretty gold cage, listening to a recording of rushing water and birds singing. I whistled to him and he turned and looked at me with interest and whistled back. He seemed very happy sitting there listening to his record, and I thought again of something a lady I know told me the other day, about two Belgian firefighters who drowned in a river while saving a swan. I didn’t know what to say. I felt very sorry for the two firefighters and at the same time something about the story was so beautiful. I imagined it as a painting that one would have to sit down to really look at. I wondered if the swan realized what happened to the man who had freed him from whatever he had been caught on in the river, and I think that unless he didn’t see it, it must have made an impression on him. How could it not?

After the farmer’s market I walked home in a roundabout way. Not far from Gramercy Park I noticed a medallion beside the door of an old house at 128 East 19th Street, announcing that Lincoln Kirstein had lived there. I was reminded of Loren MacIver’s bedroom on Perry Street where there sat a very old and beautiful toy fire engine, horse-drawn, made of cast iron. “Guess who this belonged to,” she said. “It was Lincoln Kirstein's.” She had admired it at his house during a party one night so he gave it to her. It seemed to me that Loren had that kind of thing happen all the time. There was a little snuffbox carved out of wood that she showed me a few times, and that, she said, had belonged to a farmer she met long ago in France. I think she was walking with him in his newly-plowed field when he pulled the little box from his pocket for a pinch of snuff, she admired it, and he gave it to her. She had oodles of charm, Loren did.

In the middle of April I went to the opening of a show of her work at the Alexandre Gallery on 57th Street. The show was called Loren MacIver’s Light, and everything in it was dazzling. But my favorite of all that I saw was a pastel drawing that she made in 1939, on black paper, which was so recognizably the Village that I felt as if I might walk right into its beautiful nighttime street and be able to walk home from there. I looked at it for a long time, the little amber-lit upstairs window pulling at my heart with all of its mystery and prettiness. I love those kinds of windows, lamp-lit with curtains apart just enough to allow a peek at whatever is going on inside. Sometimes there’s a whole wall of books, or a staircase disappearing upwards, or a person sitting quietly in a chair, reading the newspaper. Sometimes it’s a sad thing on the other side of a window the way it seemed to be a few days ago, when the friend I was walking with—the same friend who told me about the firemen and the swan—gasped as we passed a row of old houses. She had seen a lady lying down, but lying as if she’d been placed there for the day, attended by a kitty. There was something about the way the cat was sitting, oblivious to the beautiful day, all her attentions devoted to the lady, that made my friend say, “Oh no,” when she saw the scene through the window. I didn’t see it, it was a glimpse. But it  made a beautiful picture in my mind, like Loren’s light.Today is a beautiful warm day in New York, and if Loren were still here I would run down to Perry Street and tell her about the swan and the lady lying by the window with her nurse.

May 13, 2014


















MEMORIES OF VALI BY CAROLE RAMER


The other night I went downtown to have my hair cut by Carole Ramer. Carole has been cutting my hair forever and I never want anyone else to do it. The moment I sat down she accused me of having trimmed my own ends and thrown off the layers. There would’ve been no point in my denying that I had. Because when it comes to hair, Carole is like a surgeon. She can recognize the tiniest alteration and its inevitable bad consequences, and the scolding I got is just the kind of thing that would have delighted Vali Myers if she’d been there.

Carole and I almost always talk about Vali when we see each other. Vali is the person who introduced us, as a gift, and I’m very glad she did. One thing I can say is that whenever she talked about Carole, it was always with more affection than she seemed to have for anyone else I heard her speak of. Vali thought Carole was the most wonderful creature in the world, and she adored everything about her. Just conjuring Carole’s old-school New York accent in her mind would make Vali laugh and say, “Oh, dear Carole!” She’d describe her as having looked like a beautiful black fox when they first knew each in the early ‘70s, when Vali lived at the Chelsea Hotel.

This month will mark the eleventh anniversary of Vali’s death. She died in Melbourne, Australia, on February 12th, 2003, and sometime after she did, Carole dictated to me some recollections she had. She’s given me permission to publish them here along with some photos taken during the trip she made to visit Vali in Italy:

In the ‘Seventies I was Abbie Hoffman’s assistant. He was a brilliant man who saw what was wrong with the system and tried to activate the youth. He was smart and funny and even people who hated him loved him. He would go and speak and rile everyone up. He burnt money at the Stock Exchange. Once he even took a little knife out and stabbed himself in the ass because he got so excited. He was the Iggy Pop of revolution.

Vali, Fanny the Donkey and a few of her dogs, Il Porto Photo: Carole Ramer
Abbie introduced me to Vali in 1970 or ’71. I had never met anyone like her. She looked like a beautiful fox with that flaming red hair, the tattoos on her face, all those millions of gold medallions around her neck, chains with pictures and lockets, and her hands and feet tattooed with stories of her animals and her valley.

She wore different colored skirts and those knee-high woolen things she used to call her gaiters, with stiletto heels. She lived in a little room without a bathroom at the Chelsea Hotel. The day I met her she lifted her skirt and peed in the sink and I just fell in love with her from that moment on.
Carole with Fanny and one of Vali's dogs, 1994 Photo: Vali Myers

We would walk around together and people would stare. She was such a creature but she was so down to earth. Then things happened in our lives, she went back to Italy, I went to prison, and we lost each other for years.

Twenty years later the New York Press had an article on Vali. It said she was back at the Chelsea Hotel. I called her and said, “You probably won’t remember me…” and she said, “Oh, Baby! Lovey!” I ran to the Chelsea and it was like we hadn’t missed a beat. I knew I had to go to the valley in Italy that I had heard about and seen pictures of, so I went in April 1994.

The valley was like Tarzan Land, and I couldn’t keep up with her. I’m not an outdoorsy girl. It was the most exotic time ever for me, going into caves and climbing. I was finally in the valley seeing it; there was the pig and the donkey. She would talk to those animals and they would come to her. She was totally part of those woods. Her beautiful little house had no windows, just openings, and there was no bathroom. She’d say, “You can wash your hair in the stream.” It was freezing, and I did it once.

She’d cook every night, and we’d eat with our fingers from a big, huge bowl and I slept with Vali up on her bed. She gave me a little tattoo. I remember her working with her little needles and her India ink, and then she’d spit on it and wipe it off. She had to go over it five times to get it right. It’s on my foot, and everyone asks, “What does that mean?” Vali told me never to tell anybody.

While I was there she was working on a drawing. I was thrilled to see a real drawing in the flesh. It was more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. She showed me what it looked like under a magnifying glass, almost like a snakeskin, it was so layered and thick. First she’d sketch the drawing out in pencil. She had this little pencil about an inch long. She said, “This is the pencil I’ve always used, and when this pencil goes, that’s the end of me.”

With Sheba, the Lower East Side dog Vali brought to Italy
It gave me a chill when she said that. I was fascinated with that pencil. I thought, that’s the pencil that created all those works of art that she did for all those years! She kept it in a little tin.

After that trip I would call her from time to time, she would write to me, and time went on. And then suddenly I found out that Vali was dying. When I learned that she had died, the first thing that came into my head was that the pencil had finished. She finished the pencil and that was the end of her time. I’ve never met anyone like her and I probably never will again. But somehow I always thought she’d be around forever.




February 1st 2014

STEVE AND YUKO

One day last week I walked downtown to meet two friends for lunch on Bedford Street. On Carmine Street, even though it was not yet one o’clock, the light was that of late afternoon and very pretty, so that the tops of all the old buildings were made rosy and golden. I saw a nun locking a gate enclosing the parking lot near Our Lady of Pompeii, while another lady stood watching as she turned the key. When the lock clicked, the nun said, “Amen!” The other lady laughed and then so did the nun, and I could hear them laughing all the way to Bedford Street. I was meeting Steve and Yuko, Steve Dalachinsky and Yuko Otomo, a pair I’ve known for a very long time.

In the middle of the ‘80s they hosted a regular poetry reading at the Knitting Factory, back when it was a little old place on Houston Street down a few steps below the sidewalk. Back then, Steve reminded me of a prizefighter with his accent and stance like an old-school Jewish featherweight in an old movie. Yuko had long black hair then. Now it is long and silver and she’s just as beautiful. Steve still reminds me of a prizefighter and I love them both very much. It’s funny how that works. At one of our lunches together a year or so ago, Steve said, “Remember when we used to have arguments on the sidewalk?” And I did remember, it’s true that we did, because sometimes I found Steve Dalachinksy very maddening. Sometimes I still do, but now the maddening parts are what I love most and I can’t imagine life in New York without him or without Yuko.

At lunch we talked about lots of things: About Steve Ben Israel and Taylor Mead and how much they are missed; how all the laundromats in that part of the Village have either disappeared or become drop-off only; Steve told a joke about how flying an airplane upside down would surely mean a crack up, and somehow we ended up talking about Chairman Mao and painters. I forget how we got onto that, but it made me think of a story that a Chinese lady I once worked with relayed to me that had to do with the mole on the Chairman’s face. One day she said she’d been a member of the Little Red Guard as a child, and I remembered a copy of the Little Red Book on my mother’s bookshelf. As a kid I would sometimes look at that book and be transfixed by the photograph of the Chairman. I was transfixed by his smooth hair, his placid expression and by the mole on his chin. The Chinese lady and I both worked at a publishing house up in Times Square in the early 1990s, and when I told her about my fixation with the Chairman’s mole, she said she wanted to take me somewhere at lunchtime. When the hour came, I followed her down Broadway to 42nd Street, which had begun its transformation from X-rated into something else. Various art-related people were using the X-rated movie marquees for artistic slogans, and for a time, painters had studios on the floors above the porn theaters. One of them was a Chinese man who this lady knew, and on that day she took me to visit him.

He was a painter who had gone through all kinds of terrible things during the Cultural Revolution before somehow vanishing into Tibet. He didn’t speak any English but he was very welcoming and he made tea for us there in his studio, which was full of big oil paintings of people laboring in fields. My co-worker spoke to him at length, pointing at me, and he laughed. Then he spoke to her at length, ending by making a big sweeping gesture with both arms, and she laughed. Then she told me what he’d said. After she had told him about my interest in the Chairman’s mole, he told about how he had been assigned the job of painting giant portraits of the Chairman’s face all over buildings and billboards, using ladders and scaffolds. The portraits were so enormous that the mole on the Chairman’s face all by itself was this big—and she made the big sweeping gesture he had made—it was tremendous, the biggest mole ever painted in the history of the world, and he had painted it over and over and over. I told Steve and Yuko the story and they laughed too. They both thought it would be good to write it down. I’d be glad to hear the story in a poem by either one of them. I wish I could remember the painter’s name, but I can’t.

In my bag I had my copy of Yuko’s new book, a book of poems she wrote all about art called STUDY. I bought it at a reading she gave in Downtown Brooklyn not long ago, where Steve made a wonderful little speech to the audience about Yuko; saying in essence how, despite the fact that they’ve lived together forever and fight all the time, he can think of no other artist more truthful and real than Yuko, and how she wrote those poems over years just for the sake of writing them, without ever imagining them in a book. I’ve been carrying it around in case I have to wait on a line or take the bus, so I can open it at random and read one of Yuko’s marvelous little pictures, like one called 7000 Oaks that she wrote for Joseph Beuys:

I reflected my lips
on Beuys’ corroded mirror
. . .
Did it really take
one third of a second?

After saying goodbye to both of them in front of the café, I walked home in a very roundabout way, because everything was covered in shadows and beautiful to look at. Suddenly it’s December. How did this happen?

8 December 2013 

Steve and Yuko 2012. Photo from: http://downtownmusic.net/yuko-otomo/at-the-vision-festival-06-11-2012#

 

FROM AROUND THE NEIGHBORHOOD


I was out in the neighborhood a few days ago when I saw a lady coming with a graying Scotty dog. She’s an older lady who walks dogs for people, not lots of dogs all at once, but one dog at a time. I’ve known her from the neighborhood forever. For years now, when I see her, I sometimes stop and chat with her and pet whoever she has in her charge. Having had a dog myself for a long time, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people who also had dogs, and for the most part I would know the names of the dogs but not the people, and that’s just the way it always was and is.

This lady’s name I do know because at some point I heard somebody call her Gloria, but I don’t think she knows my name, although she knew my dog Pilar. Once I came upon Gloria sitting on a stoop with an elderly dog, and somehow we got on the subject of the neighborhood and how fast it has changed in recent years. She grew up in the neighborhood and raised her kids in it. She told me that back in the Sixties, when 8th Avenue ran both ways, there was an old Italian man who came down from way uptown in a horse-drawn wagon piled with produce to sell to the grocers. Sometimes I see Gloria on a stoop with an old lady whose voice sounds as if she’s swallowed helium, and for a long time that lady had a little tiny dog who always barked at the big ones going by, and the lady would say in her funny voice, “He tinks he da bossa da block!”

There’s a very old Afghan hound on 22nd Street who I always say hello to when I go by. He’s getting very rickety but he’s still elegant. He’s a male dog, but he’s always reminded me of the actress Sally Kellerman. I told that once to the man who stands with him in their place on the sidewalk, and he said, “Yeah, I can see that.” I got to know another neighborhood lady because of her dogs, Jerry and Daisy. For years I enjoyed chatting with her on the street corner when I’d run into her while walking Pilar. I didn’t know her name for a long time either and I don’t recall how I came to know it but I did—it’s Michele—and she’s become one of my dearest friends.  Her dog Jerry passed away not too long ago and I still miss seeing him. Once I took Daisy to stay with me while Michele was on a trip for a few days. Daisy was a perfect guest in every way, although I did have to take her to pee in front of the Chelsea Hotel or she wouldn’t go.

When I saw Gloria coming the other day, I thought of another lady with a dog who I haven’t seen in a while, and the day that I found a big book of limericks by the trash. I was reminded of my father, who always liked risqué limericks, and I opened it and read the first one:

There was a young girl of Aberystwyth
Who took grain to the mill to get grist with
The Miller’s son Jack
Laid her flat on her back
And united the organs they pissed with.

It made me laugh, as I thought of my dad and felt a pang. Up above me on a stoop was sitting this familiar neighborhood lady, all covered in paint as usual, with her shiny black dog. “I just found a book of limericks,” I said to her, and she replied, in her old-style accent, “Oh yeah? Is it Ogden Nash?”

I never learned her name and I’m sure she didn’t know mine, but there comes a point, I think, when it is too late to ask. Some time ago I was surprised to see her somewhere over on the East Side. When she saw me she said, “Get back to the neighborhood!” And when she did—and I’m not sure how this works—it gave me the coziest feeling. She didn’t even stop, but the little comment felt full of affection, of a kind there is between familiars on the block.

The neighborhoods of Manhattan have always felt to me like individual little towns. And even though that is diminishing with so many huge new buildings and so many less businesses owned by regular people, the neighborhoods still have that feeling. I realized that I haven’t seen the lady with the black dog since the day she told me to get myself back to the neighborhood. I’ve wondered about her, because people get priced out very often these days, so I stopped to ask Gloria if she had seen her.  And she put her hand on her heart and told me the lady had passed away. She didn’t know her name either. “I know her like I know you,” she said. We stood on the sidewalk for a few minutes feeling very sad, and then we parted.

I wish I had known the lady’s name. She was wonderful. She always wore blue overalls covered with paint and a blue or red kerchief tied over her hair. She talked just like a friend of mine who grew up in Brooklyn and went to Erasmus High School. She looked Irish. She must have liked limericks or she wouldn’t have asked, “Is it Ogden Nash?” I kept the book, and I’ll always associate it with her. Walking home, I thought of another neighborhood lady who looked just like Anne Bancroft. She was crippled and I would see her resting against parking meters. Once I told her what I thought and she said, “Oh, Anne Bancroft was a wonderful actress.” It’s been years now since I’ve seen that lady, and come to think of it, all the parking meters have disappeared too.

September 27, 2013

Copyright Romy Ashby

ON FIFTH AVENUE

Some of my most unexpected thoughts come to me while I’m walking in the city, and most surprising of all is when an old memory suddenly resurfaces for no apparent reason. On Saturday morning I decided to walk up to the Mid-Manhattan library, which is on the corner of 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, to borrow a book. It was sunny out but Fifth Avenue was all in shadow as I walked because it was still early. At about 30th Street, while I waited for the light, I thought of a little boy who I met a long time ago on a train.

I was only about eighteen years old then, and the train was going from France to Italy. The boy’s name was Pier Luigi. He was seven years old and his head was wrapped in white bandages because he had just had brain surgery in Paris. He was with his mother and father and his grandmother, and then there was one other lady and myself in the sleeping compartment we were sharing. I sat beside Pier Luigi. He was friendly but he didn’t say much. He mostly looked out the window and his mother and father and grandmother didn’t say much either, and they were very careful with him. I remember his mother opening a bag full of bread and cheese and sausage and making sandwiches for everyone, including me.

Across the street and up a block from the Mid-Manhattan library sits the big 42nd Street library and the two lions. As I went into the Mid-Manhattan I felt a pang of anxiety, because there’s a plan to do away with it and move its books to the 42nd Street library—once they’ve finished the gut job they plan for that library—all of which I think is wrong and terrifying. I went up the escalator to the second floor and into the P section of the fiction shelves, where I found the book I wanted: I Curse the River of Time, by Per Petterson. I don’t read a lot of modern fiction, but I got sucked into one of his other novels by accident this summer and felt like reading another one.

The second floor of the Mid-Manhattan library only has an escalator going up, so I pushed the button for the elevator to go back down. While I waited, I looked at a librarian sitting quietly at her desk working on something and I wondered what kind of opinion she might have about the plans for the libraries around the city. I heard it said in a ‘Save the Library’ meeting that librarians were ordered by their bosses to keep mum on the subject should anyone ask, which says a lot about the plans, I think. I thought of the librarian I knew as a child and how it felt whenever she stamped the card with the due date and pushed a book across the counter to me. Here in the present day, the Mid-Manhattan librarian printed out a receipt for me with the due date and slipped it inside the front cover. As I left, I thought how much better the old way was, with the little pocket inside the book to keep the card in, because I always lose the receipt and then I’m never sure when the book is due.

I walked back downtown feeling glad to have the book but worried about the library, and then my thoughts went wandering. Everything was very calm on Fifth Avenue. I walked over to Park Avenue and everything was calm there too, and I thought about all of the terrible things going on in the world at that very moment, and what the president has been saying and how much I don’t want us to drop bombs on anyone, and I saw a doorman standing in the sunshine in front of a big, grand old Park Avenue building. His eyes were closed, and he was standing on the sidewalk in his gray and white uniform as if he were sleeping. And just then he opened his eyes and looked right at me. I imagined what it might be like to live in one of those old fortresses, and how nice it might be to ride up and down in an elevator in stead of climbing all kinds of stairs. Earlier in the week I visited a friend in the Dakota, where the elevator has a nice, cushioned seat to sit on. I always sit when I ride in that elevator, and every time I do, it reminds me of a confessional.

I made a big circle back over to Sixth Avenue where, between 27th and 28th Streets, the wholesale flower shops had boxes of flowers and little trees standing all over the sidewalk. And almost hidden in the shadows between two buckets of leafy branches sat the mysterious gray cat who on occasion comes up, when the iron doors in the sidewalk are opened, from the depths of the cellar. Lots of the florists have cats, maybe because mice like to eat certain plants, and they’re always friendly. I had my camera so I took his picture and petted him.

All the while I held the book by Per Petterson in my hand. When I looked at it, I thought of the boy on the train again. Then I realized that what had probably made me think of him was the name Per, because when he told me his name, he had said it as if it were ‘Per Luigi.’ And I can still hear him say it. When night came on the train, the bunks were opened and I had a top one. After the lights were switched off, Pier Luigi’s grandmother tucked everybody in, even me. I can still see her silhouette as she stood on the little ladder and stuffed the blanket in so I felt strapped to the bunk. I don’t remember if she said anything. I don’t think she did.

THE DISAPPEARING CHURCH TRICK


Dear Friends,
Once in a while I post a Walkers essay from the past when it feels right to do so. Yesterday evening I walked by the place where Mary Help of Christians Church stood on East 12th Street and I could see that it was almost entirely gone now. Back in 2007 was when the church got its notice, and there was a ‘last mass,’ which I attended. Then, the church was granted a stay of execution of sorts, which lasted five years, until now. Mary Help had a big, active congregation. For a long time, while it was closed, I would see people holding mass for themselves on the steps of the church. This past month I’ve watched it be demolished and felt sad. So it feels right to post this one now. I went looking in my pictures, and found some from that Sunday in 2007, and I will post a couple of them here today.–R.A.


There was a time when I didn’t know such a thing as closing a church with a whole parish begging for it not to happen could occur, but it does, all the time. Our Lady Queen of Angels up in Harlem was closed by the police and some of its parishioners were arrested, all ladies, I read. I was shocked the day I read in the Post about how the Cardinal lured the priest from old Our Lady of Vilnius uptown to meet with him and then had all the locks changed while he was out. After I read that I ran downtown to see for myself. I’ve noticed that little church whenever I’ve had occasion to go to New Jersey in a car, crouching there right near the mouth of the Holland Tunnel. The archdiocese had put the little church on its vanish list even though it had an active parish just like Our Lady Queen of Angels did. Whenever they close down an old church saying it has irreparable damage, usually invisible to the naked eye, there seems always to be some kind of luxury residential building or huge dormitory waiting to spring up on its spot.

When I got to Our Lady of Vilnius it looked very lonely sitting there and people had left a sign protesting its closing. Then I saw three old geezers on the steps.








Old geezers are good for the lowdown on anything, especially if you’re a lady. They told me that it was all true. They told me the priest’s elderly housekeeper tried to keep out the thugs sent down by the Cardinal with their locksmithing tools. “This is where Father sleeps, you know,” she told them, but they weren’t listening. While the old guys told me all about it, a flicker of motion caught my eye at the window in a door.

“Yeah,” one of them said, “They got t’ree guards in there, guardin’ the place.” They said that some of the people turned away from the church had cried. The guys told me they themselves are members of the Knights of Columbus, and now their meeting place was closed. One of them said the priest asked him if he knew of anything in his building, because he was locked out of his rooms with no place to live. Another of the old guys said he wasn’t sure that it was a good thing that the Post ran a photo of the Our Lady of Vilnius priest smoking a cigar. “That don’t look good,” he said. But one of the others said, “I don’t see nothin’ wrong wit’ dat. Maybe he felt a lotta anxiety, ya know, and the cigar, it calmed him down a little.” They showed me the bright new shiny lock on one of the doors. “And meanwhile,” one of them said, “they got all the money in the world in Rome. But they gotta close down the church. And they got a senior center in the basement. So now they got no place to go.”

I asked the boys if I could take their picture, and they posed for me on the steps. I thought one of them looked like Al Lewis and told them that. Al’s lookalike said, “Yeah, but he’s dead. He was older than me. He had that restaurant for a while on Bleecker and Leroy, Grampa’s.” I told them how one day I saw him standing on the sidewalk out front of that restaurant when it opened. I was surprised by how tall he was. On the Munsters he looked little, but on the street he towered over me. Normally I don’t bother famous people on the streets in the city, but I couldn’t resist Al Lewis. I said, “Hi Grampa.” He smiled down at me and he was just as friendly as he could be. He told me all about how he got his start in the theaters on the Lower East Side and he gave me a card with a caricature of himself on it. Grampa’s restaurant is long gone, but while it was there it seemed to do a good business. The building was demolished and replaced with a luxury residence. “The archdiocese has a lotta money,” said the one in the baseball cap. “And here they go, closing down churches and hospitals.” Al’s lookalike re-lit his cigar and said, “And if dat wasn’t enough, the price of stamps is goin’ up again, too.” The three of them sat shrugging and shaking their heads.

A few weeks ago I learned that Mary Help of Christians on East 12th near Avenue A was having its very last mass. I had never been inside it, but many times I went to their flea market. That’s where I bought my black suede platform boots for $5, the ones that eventually both broke at the same time when I was standing at a light on Park Avenue and 81st Street. I was going to a party in a very snooty big gallery. I had to hobble onto a bus heading to Madison Avenue where I bought a pair of disposable hospital slippers in an old drugstore. I threw the platform shoes in the trash bin right where they died, on Park Avenue, and wore the slippers to the party. It was one of the most glamorous things that had ever happened to me, and it only cost $3.99—for the slippers.

I decided to go to the last mass.

It was packed with sad people of all colors and types. It was a lovely old church, and very solid. The archdiocese had apparently decided attendance had dwindled although nobody there seemed to think so. At the end of the mass and the long giving of thanks for having had the church for more than 100 years, children were let up into its belfry to ring the old bell. I went outside and stood on the sidewalk and listened as it rang and rang and rang.

June 7th 2007


Priests outside Mary Help of Christians for the 'last mass' in May 2007

Note: Our Lady of Vilnius still stands next to the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, a lawsuit filed by its congregation having halted its demolition, but to date they have not been able to use it.

Copyright 2013 Romy Ashby