CASH CASH OR LIGHTS OUT

Mayday Blossoms out on 20th Street
A few nights ago I went to see Viv Albertine talk about her new book, To Throw Away Unopened, something I happened to notice in The New Yorker and I’m so glad I did. Once upon a time she was the guitar player in the Slits, a band that I loved a long time ago. I loved seeing her now, looking as much a regular lady as me, and I liked everything she had to say about life, and about her mother, who lived to be very old and who always encouraged Viv to live life to the fullest, to grab for and fight for an interesting life. I almost never ask a question at those kinds of events, but I did this time. I asked her if her mother ever saw the Slits play in London back in the ‘70s. And she said that she did, that she never missed a gig, that it was always “Mum + 1.” 

In her book, she talks a lot about her mother, who was born in 1919, and about the ladies of her mother’s age and the limitations they had to live with even as smart people who wanted to live life to the brim. She wrote about how after her mother divorced her father, just not having to do all his laundry and cook for him felt like tremendous luxuries to her. And how, when Viv was a kid, her mother would take her and her sister to the seaside for a whole day and let them do everything they wanted with all the money she’d saved for it, and then tell them that they’d had so much fun that they’d actually managed to cram a whole two-week vacation into that day, and she was so convincing that they believed her. Reading that, I thought, yes, that way of thinking is really the secret, isn’t it.

Outside yesterday, the trees were exploding in blossoms and full of sparrows and mourning doves when I looked into the florist on 8thAvenue for the kitty, but he was not visible. Whenever I take Honey out to circle the neighborhood we usually stop in to see him. Yesterday it was still too chilly to take Honey for a walk, but soon I will, and then we’ll do all the fun things: visit the florist kitty and look into the barbershop windows and sit on one of the tall stoops over towards 10thAvenue, and when we get home Honey’s purring will be much louder, the way it always is after an outing, because so much interesting living can fit into one hour. 

There’s another tomcat who hangs out in the florist’s who lives in the deli up the block, but he likes the florist better. Sometimes he ventures down the street a ways and into the cellar of another old building. Certain buildings of 125 or 150 years of age are connected by passageways deep underground so a cat can pull all kinds of disappearing acts and sudden appearances, and very often the stores leave their cellar doors hanging invitingly open. 

Yesterday I passed one of those doors in an old brick building, open onto the staircase to the cellar, just as the late afternoon sunlight was falling against the old stone walls and the iron handrail bolted into the sparkling stone, and at the bottom of the stairs a single 40-watt bulb was burning in a sinister way that I imagine cats must appreciate. I’m sure that if I were to offer Honey a chance to get down off my shoulder and venture into one of those cellars she’d take it.

I thought of my dad, Seaweed, and something he told me once about his grandparents’ cellar in their old house in Baltimore. Their cellar, he said, had an electric lightbulb in it which gave him a most peculiar feeling whenever he ventured down there. The cellar was damp and full of coal, and the lightbulb always brought to his mind the top key of the old piano upstairs in the parlor, the key never used that went plink plink plink. He always thought of that piano key and heard it in his head when he looked at the electric lightbulb burning in the cellar. I wished I could hear him tell it again, and that I could walk the streets of New York with him again and point out the lightbulb. He’d want to see it if I told him about it, and he’d want to meet the two tomcats. He always stopped to pet street cats and run his fingers over their throat to check for purring. Everything about him was old fashioned in a way, the way that he spoke and certain words he used, like something out of a James Cagney movie, because he was born in 1922.

I thought of a time, maybe ten years ago, when I ended up sitting on a grand jury for a month, each day a different crime to hear about, and one of them was a lady bank robber. She went into a bank up near the Port Authority bus station and slipped a note to the teller that read, “Cash Cash or Lights Out.” We heard the note read several times and more than one person commented on how old fashioned it sounded, as if James Cagney should have been waiting outside in the getaway car, but instead they caught the lady around the corner and down the block, and I think that she had worn a wig to do the robbery and ditched it in a trash can. My dad was already dead then, or I would have told him that story and he would have liked it. 

I wish I knew what it was that made my dad’s five-year-old mind connect the old lightbulb in Baltimore to the top key on the piano, but he didn’t understand it himself. I’m just glad I remembered him telling me about it.

May 1st, 2018 copyright Romy Ashby

RADIO TROTTOIR

For a long time, every night, police horses used to pass by down on the street when it was very late and quiet—as quiet as it can be with the subway and a firehouse around the corner—and their approach could be heard from a distance before they reached my block. I thought of them last night very late, as I sat reading beside the window and the sizzling radiator, about how they don’t pass by anymore and how I’m not sure how long it’s been since they did. Is it a year? Or more than that? I was finishing my last book of 2017, a very pretty little book called Night Thoughts by Wally Shawn with a picture of him on the cover. Like most of what I’ve read of his or seen him perform onstage, Night Thoughts had the effect of making me take up where he left off, on his momentum, and ride off on thoughts of my own as replete with questions and wonderings as his seem to be.

I was sitting with the book in my lap when I heard a plow coming. No snow was falling and there was no snow on the street, but the plow came anyway, grinding against the bare dark asphalt in a shower of golden-orange sparks. Old subway trains came to mind, the way they squealed into the stations like giant iron comic strips in showers of sparks like that, but in my memory those sparks were blue, not orange. And I thought of my coffee wagon from that time, down near the New York Stock Exchange, and my long-dead friend Charlie who worked it with me. He was old school, a real Guido, and he loved to pretend to have intimate married-people fights with me in front of customers he disliked. He would see one of them float up out of the subway and as they neared our wagon he would be yelling, “When I got the guys comin’ over to watch the game I don’t want them lookin’ at your panties dryin’ in the john like that, aright?” Then he’d pretend he’d been caught and enjoy their embarrassed expressions.

I thought about something a Dutch lady friend told me yesterday, about a furry black dog she’d seen, as big as a pony, standing on the end of a leash waiting for the light to change. A few nicely-dressed men were gathered around the dog, talking, all wanting to pet him but being careful because although he was magnificent, there hung from the corner of his mouth a thick rope of slobber. She watched, wondering if the slobber would stay where it was since it was freezing, but then the dog shook his big head and she saw the men all jump back at once and check the fronts of their coats before each going their separate ways.

When she told me about the slobber dog, I was reminded of something that happened one night on Seventh Avenue a few years ago, and I told her about it. It was a hot summer night and I came upon a police horse standing unattended outside the deli on the corner. He looked at me and stamped one foot. I stopped in front of his long face, which was brown with a white stripe, and put out my hand to pet him. That’s when he stretched forth and wiped his huge nose, which I had not noticed was very slick and drippy, against me from my neck to my waist. And as he did, the cop who would normally have been sitting on him emerged from the deli with two handfuls of paper towel. “Oh, no!” he exclaimed. “I was just going to wipe his nose!” He apologized all over himself, stuffing the paper towels into his pockets “for later,” and climbed back onto the horse.

There’s a remarkable dog I see around my neighborhood a lot, a pretty golden retriever type of girl-dog who loves her man so much that she spends a lot of time outside sitting upright on the sidewalk with her arms wrapped around his legs. She hugs him very tightly and desperately, like an old-fashioned goodbye scene at a railway station, and there is usually a gathering of people standing around watching, and whenever I see them I wish I could know exactly what the lady dog is thinking and feeling while she’s doing it, this curious embracing that can look so tragic and private.

On Christmas Day a handsome 19th century building caught fire right next to the fire house. I stood with other people on the corner and saw bright flames flickering within its old cornice of verdigris copper at the rooftop. Everyone seemed to have been evacuated safely, so I went home, but with the odd feeling that always comes with things being okay here while being not okay just over there. My building has caught fire a few times, and so far we’ve been lucky. Later I learned that among the tenants burned out but unharmed in that fire was the lady dog and her man. How sad and how lucky!

My Dutch friend told me that something distinctive about New York is the way we all talk to each other. New York, unlike Amsterdam, she said, still has its Radio Trottoir—its pavement radio—meaning that we find out a lot from overhearing talk on the street. I had never thought about that, although it rang true as soon as she said it. “Don’t strangers talk on the street in Amsterdam?” I asked her. “No,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said. “We don’t anymore.”
“Why do you think we still do?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said. She told me that for her the fact that we do is one of the things that sets New York City apart from all other cities, like the steam that pours out from beneath its streets.



 December 31, 2017






YOU’RE THE BOSS, APPLESAUCE

A few days ago I got caught in a cloudburst and found myself right across the street from Flawless Sabrina’s house on East 73rd Street. Flawless Sabrina, aka Jack Doroshow, is someone I am always very happy to see, but my aversion to just dropping in on someone unannounced kept me from ringing her bell. 

She has had the same apartment since she first came as a fabulous queen to the city in 1967. It’s not big, but the rooms in it are poems full of gold and silver light, worthy of Harun al-Rashid. I waited out the rain in a dry spot, imagining Flawless sitting in one of those glittering rooms inside her pretty building, thinking of my first visit to her. I remember staring at the ceiling, which is embossed with gold leaf that Flawless said is actually tin foil that she and her brother stuck there one summer, long ago. I remember her telling me what an uppity, snobby, mean, and angry queen she had been for a long time. “Is that true?” I asked, because to me over the years she’s never been anything but warmth and kindness. “Oh!” she shouted. “I was furious! Furious! And my ears, so close to my mouth, listened to that shit for years! Fucking Hell! And years of high heels! Oh, my God! You should see my feet! Holy Christ! Oh, my God, they’re knarled! I wore a size four, but it was a size twelve foot I was putting in ‘em!”

Flawless said that if she were a tchotchke in a shop window, she would be labeled “Late Deco,” for having first opened her peepers in 1939. She told about being born in a South Philly slum five days after Hitler marched into Poland. She said peace is an aberration because there have been wars all her life. She told about the streets of South Philly and how they were a feast for the eye, always in a vapor of coal dust and how, during the war, there were rations and coupons but thanks to the mobsters the food they got was fantastic. The best steaks and the best olive oil. She said the neighborhood was full of gangsters and kids and church ladies. On Sundays, her grandmother invited the priest to come over for dinner. So as a kid, Flawless got to ask him questions all about idolatry and the Catholic habit of going into a little wooden booth and chatting up the guy sitting in it about whatever you did wrong and getting the little assignment that wiped the whole slate clean, which Flawless thought was a pretty good deal.

She told me about her mother and how she drilled into her kids’ heads the importance of having a positive outlook like a broken record. ‘You gotta be positive, you gotta be positive, you gotta be positive.’

Yes, but Mother! What about the negativity?
‘You gotta be positive!'
‘But Mother, surely it should be nuanced.’ 
'No, I think not.' 
I think the reptilian brain will more than make up for the differential!


The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started and the sun came out. I walked all the way downtown to the farmers market to buy some tomatoes, thinking of Flawless. She said that if you have the eyes of a child you stay curious and you get curiouser and curiouser and that one of the downsides of that is that you can be easily fooled. Then she said that she hoped her best quality was that of being a fool. She said, “I would certainly hope that I’m hardwired with fool. Yes, please!” She said she thinks ‘success’ is horseshit because it’s a moving target that can’t be hit and that significance is all that matters in life.

Once in the market, I  was reminded of a very unpleasant lady I encountered there once, standing behind a big pyramid of tomatoes next to a weighing scale. Her tomatoes were arranged so perfectly that I thought I should ask her for two rather than touch them. And when I did, she snapped: “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you will have to get them yourself, just like everybody else. We’re not here to do everything for you.”

This took me by surprise and I felt immediately embarrassed. The man next to me turned to have a look at me, and so did the other three or four people gathered around. The lady looked at the man and shrugged, as if certain that he would sympathize with the kind of crap she had to put up with, and said, "I can help whoever's next." 

I was wearing a cape and my left arm was underneath it, invisible. Hanging on my right arm was my shopping bag full of other things, and in my right hand, my billfold. All at once I had an inspiration. I said to the man beside me, “Would you mind grabbing me two tomatoes? Any old two will do. I only have one arm, and I’d really appreciate it.”

The man's eyes got big. “Of course," he said. "Of course!” He shot a look at the tomato lady, who had reddened upon suddenly finding herself the one embarrassed in front of all the people. “Oh gosh,” she said. “I didn’t realize that you were handicapped! Why didn’t you say something?” She fell all over herself as the man put two tomatoes in a bag for me while my perfectly good left arm stayed under my cape doing nothing. I remembered Flawless Sabrina telling me how Andy Warhol used to say, “You’re the boss, applesauce,” to any kind of authority figure. I almost felt sorry for the lady, but she deserved it, and I felt lucky to have had the lame arm idea then and there rather than later. The rain started falling again as I walked home, and on both sides of the street umbrellas of all different colors opened up at once. 


3 July 2009

In memory of Flawless Sabrina, 1939 - 2017

LEONOR FINI'S WHITE CAT

Coming across 24th Street a few days ago, I thought of an envelope that I saw lying on the dirty floor of the C train a while back. Every now and then it rises up in my mind without any provocation and I’m sure it will haunt me for the rest of my life. As I left the crowded train at 23rd Street I happened to see the envelope, well out of reach, on which was written in a shaky hand the words: “DO NOT LOSE.” The doors of the train banged shut and that was that. Now I wondered, the way I always do when I think of it, if I could have somehow gotten hold of the envelope, and then if I could have somehow found the person who lost it. As I walked along thinking about it, a man I know from the neighborhood stopped me on the sidewalk. He said he had something sad to tell me, and I knew right away what he would say because there was only one thing we had in common that could be sad, and that would be something happening to Roberta Peters. And indeed, she had died the day before, but very peacefully, and after the long and charmed life he knew she had lived. He told me that the previous Sunday was the last time he took her for a walk, which she had enjoyed the way she enjoyed every walk in this neighborhood where she lived and was such marvelous presence. The man was for a long time the hired walker for this very fine old lady dog, whom everyone called Bobbie, and he would always say how lucky he felt to have that privilege. I always wondered about the person who actually lived with her, the person who had named her after the famous opera singer, and imagined that whoever it was must be a very big Roberta Peters fan. When I was a child we had a few of her records in the house that my mother had inherited from a lady who gave her a whole collection of operas, which was why I knew right away who Bobbie’s namesake was when the man first introduced us.

Wonderful Roberta Peters "Bobbie"on 7th Avenue 2017
Whenever we happened to meet outside on the street somewhere I always stopped to pet Bobbie and tell her how much I loved her, and the last time that happened I took her picture. I felt sad to learn that she had passed, but in the way that we feel sad for any person who dies at the age of 100 after a wonderful earthly existence. We know it’s not a tragedy when that happens, so why does it chafe and stab at the heart so?  

There was for a long time a fierce little longhaired Chihuahua who lived on 20th Street with a very old lady. They liked to spend most of the day out on their stoop together when it wasn’t raining or freezing, and the old lady had a voice that sounded (and still sounds) like she’d breathed in helium. That dog barked his head off at every other dog who passed, no matter how big and scary, and he terrorized the block. He was nice to me on the few occasions when I reached out to pet him. The lady would say in her helium voice, “You gotta watch out, he tough,” while the dog accepted his pets. I was reminded of the two of them not long ago when I read an article about the artist Leonor Fini in a magazine somewhere. I have in my house a framed portrait of Leonor Fini’s white cat, taken by my friend Indra Tamang a long time ago in Paris. He told me about visiting her one day with Charles Henri Ford, and how her apartment was full of cats. Apparently this particular big white cat always lounged among the people whenever she entertained. When he showed me the photograph I liked it so much that he gave it to me. Around that same time he also showed me a postcard that Leonor Fini once sent to Charles. The picture was of a cliff that looked to be formed in lava, and Fini had added to the top of it a pair of cat’s ears and two sprays of whiskers with a pen. She was an extreme lover of kitties, Leonor Fini was.

I bought a frame at the Utrecht art supply store on West 23rd Street and put the photograph in it right there in the shop. Then I started towards home via 22nd Street, and when I reached their stoop, there sat the old lady and her fierce little dog.  I stopped to show the lady the photograph and she made a little squealing sound. “Oh, nice!” she exclaimed in her helium voice, and as she did, the dog came down for a closer look. He stared at Leonor Fini’s big white cat with his lips trembling. He began to growl somewhere deep inside his chest. “Oh, my, he like that cat,” the lady said, and then he exploded in barking at the photograph. It seemed to last a very long time, my standing there holding the picture before the two of them, looking and barking from their stoop, and it’s a memory in color that I hope will never fade. It’s been quite a long while since I’ve seen the dog, but I still see the lady sitting out on the stoop, sometimes with another old lady in a housedress who has a medium-sized poodle. I love the photo of Leonor Fini’s white cat. Something about him always makes me think of the British actor Peter Ustinov, and I imagine that they might have shared certain characteristics, each of them looking the way they did. The day after Bobbie’s walker told me she’d passed away, the weather turned hot and humid, with an air quality alert. Her timing could not have been better.

Indra Tamang's portrait of Leonor Fini's white kitty

Copyright Romy Ashby 2017