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


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


On Seventh Avenue a little family of sparrows is growing in one of the streetlamps. I’ve watched the two parents delivering takeout to the kids, who have their full growth now and are starting to peek out. I can see what looks like singing going on up there, but the subway drowns the sound out. Behind the wrought-iron gates of the seminary garden over on 20th Street is a whole other story. The garden is full of sparrows and starlings and doves, and the singing there is just as loud and beautiful as the explosions of flowers pouring over the iron fence. Walking along that particular block at the magic hour, at just this time of year, I can really marvel at the prettiness of it all, and the seminary garden block is one of the fluffiest parts of New York outside of Central Park. When I’ve stopped to listen to the singing in the garden, I’ve more than once found myself transported back to a lost moment from childhood, deep in a forest full of moss and sword ferns where the melodies floated down from the highest deep green of very old trees. That kind of singing had more mystery in it than the neighborhood singing of New York that happens mostly right at eye level, but the closeness of the city birds is as much a part of the natural rhythm as the subway down beneath the sidewalk.

Yesterday in the grocery store, two little notes from a song playing found their way to my ears through the din, two single piano notes, and right away I thought: 151. That was the number on the jukebox at Mars Bar for Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” I played it whenever I went in that place, which was on a dark corner all those years ago, and I remembered a drink they had called a blue whale and that Taylor Mead would often be sitting there when I went in. It was a small place and in the nighttime crowd only certain notes made it through the noise unless you stood right over the jukebox. That bar is long gone, along with the building it stood in and Taylor Mead, too, but when those notes came through the din of the grocery store thirty years on, the number 151 came too.

I was wondering at how that works, how a sound or scent can unearth entire memories almost whole, when a friend of mine came out of my bathroom, which has a skylight, and told me how nice she thought it was to sit there and listen to the birds singing on the roof. I’ve thought the same thing and wondered what they look like in their nest, which must be very close to the skylight, but because opening the door to the roof sets off an alarm I can’t go up and see for myself. They are doves, though, that much is obvious from their conversations around the nest, and in the early morning, they make me think of Rome. They also remind me of my friend Vali Myers and her garden in the South of Italy, and also too of the crummy little apartment where I lived for a while on 11th Street and Avenue C with windows on the airshaft full of doves.

Once I went to Rome and stayed in a cheap hotel by the train station. My window looked onto rooftops. The WC cabinet had no window, but in the wall behind the toilet was a small, square door about the size of a pot holder with ornate hinges and fastened shut with a hook. I wondered about it, but at first it didn’t occur to me to open the little door. I thought it must be where the cleaning supplies were kept, but it really wasn’t big enough for that, so after a while curiosity won out and I unlatched the little door and opened it. Inside was a clay pipe which opened into an airshaft full of pale gray light. The surprise was the big, luxurious nest someone had built inside the pipe, and in it, three or four perfect eggs. I shut the little door very quickly. I remember thinking that it was probably lucky that the mama was out when I opened it, and that perhaps no one ever opened it, or if they did, whoever built the nest wasn’t worried about it. I remember wondering if it was all intentional, and if someone opened the door to take the eggs, because there are people who love to eat tiny eggs, and it took some hours for it to dawn on me that the clay pipe had not been installed just for that purpose, but as a way to air out the toilet. In the early mornings there must have been birds singing outside, but all I remember is the little door behind the toilet.  And yet the sounds of mourning doves here in New York always make me think of Rome.

On 24th Street there stands an old house where someone on the top floor props the window open with two plastic globes of the earth, and sometimes with an old cello as well, and I always see doves flying in and out when I pass by. And whenever the world chafes too much with all of its irreversible ruin and impending calamity, I think about the birds, who will likely survive and take over everything. I imagine how much they will enjoy living in our houses without the irksome presence of us, the people, and imagining that lessens my dread. Vali used to say New York would make a beautiful ruin, with all the great towers covered in flora and inhabited by critters. I said so to my friend when she remarked on the birds singing in the bathroom, and she agreed. The Empire State Building, she said. It would make the most splendid pigeon house ever built.

 May 28, 2017 
Text & Photos copyright Romy Ashby