LIFE OUT THE WINDOW

Today I heard a car going by down on the snowy street, tapping out “Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits” on the horn. The sound of that set off a little torrent of thoughts, the kind that follow one after another like dominoes. I remembered being in Paris in 1982, where I also heard Shave and a Haircut on a car horn. It was early one morning and I was in a cheap little hotel in the hook of a tiny, narrow street, and I awoke to the sounds of a lot of pissed-off drivers stuck somewhere on a bigger boulevard nearby. In the midst of all the honking, someone tooted “Shave and a Haircut,” and then someone in the distance tooted back “two bits.” It made me laugh. That souvenir has popped into my mind every now and then forever, but this time I decided to write it down in case this is the last time it does. 

That little hotel had a winding staircase so steep you almost had to climb up on all fours, and the room itself was left over from another time with floral-print wallpaper and a crucifix over the bed. At night I could pull open the windows and look down on the little street, where under a circle of lamplight there stood all by herself a middle aged and rotund prostitute. She wore a black bustier and whenever a man passed by, she unleashed one of her big breasts and held it in one hand like offering a fruit for sale. I remember her dark hair, worn in a bob, and that her complexion (and her big breast) was very white. 

 

On Sunday the snow coming down outside looked beautiful, sticking all over the rooftops and fire escapes and the bare trees, while inside the radiator was doing its huffing and puffing and banging and making this little old place feel very nineteenth century. Down on the street everyone passing by was all bundled up because it has been so cold. And I remembered a story a friend of mine once told me from when she was in grade school. After the recess was over, on a freezing cold day with snow all over the ground, everyone had come back to the classroom except one little girl who they could all see out the window, standing alone on the playground facing the flagpole. The problem was that she had decided to lick the flagpole and ended up stuck there, and the teacher had to go out with a cup full of water to set her free. When my friend told me that story I laughed, and she did too, but I also had a pang of what it must have felt like to that kid. I would have been in such a panic had it been me, thinking I’d never get free, and worse, that I’d get into trouble for it. 

 

Out my window I can see on the roof of one of the old buildings nearby a big, many-paned skylight, the old artist’s studio type, and I watched the snow coming down all around it wondering what the light must be like inside. I’ve known a few old artists who had real, old-fashioned looking places, and one of them was the painter Loren MacIver. Loren lived downtown on Perry Street and I can remember visiting her sometimes when there was snow, and sitting with her in her studio in the winter light. And once I remember a friend of hers, a composer and pianist named Willard Roosevelt, playing the piano that stood in one corner of that big room. He had a voluminous beard and played very well, and I remember being not a little awestruck by the fact that his grandfather was President Theodore Roosevelt. Things like that would happen in New York, those up close brushes with history, and whenever they did, it felt to me as if the whole city was in on it, like a magician. 

 

Once I ran into Grampa Munster, Al Lewis, who had a restaurant for a while on Bleecker Street. He was very friendly and didn’t seem to mind me accosting him and calling him Grampa. I remember standing with him on the sidewalk near Leroy Street outside Our Lady of Pompeii while he told me all about Vaudeville and the old theaters over on the East Side. He gave me his card, which had a little caricature of him on it. He was very tall. I would have expected him to be a little guy from watching him on The Munsters, but that’s probably because Herman Munster was so tall. Watching re-runs of that old show was one of the happiest things about childhood for me, because I would watch it with my grandma, who loved Grampa Munster. 


That was always a wonderful thing about this city, the running into people, the pleasures of “happenstance” as Fran Lebowitz put it. And the fun of eavesdropping on the streets and in cafes, and talking to strangers on the bus. I’ve had some great conversations with strangers on the bus over the years. I remember once on my way uptown I was sitting and reading Under the Volcano by Malcom Lowry, when an old lady changed her seat to come and sit beside me and ask if didn’t I think it was the best book ever written. 

 

In the last year most of my outside life has been watched from the window, but at least there’s a lot of action. There’s a man in a pirate’s hat and long black cloak who carries a little box broadcasting recorded psalms. I like him, but my favorite is Piaf Man, who rides all over Manhattan on his bicycle playing Edith Piaf. I can recognize her voice from just a few distant notes, and whenever I do I hurry to the window so as not to miss the sight of Piaf Man gliding by down on the street.

 

February 9, 2021

Copyright Romy Ashby

 

THE NEW YEAR 2021

I was thinking about my dad in the night, and I remembered a night a very long time ago now, when he came to wake me up, smelling like cocktails and cigarettes, and said, “Happy New Year, bunny! It’s 1970!” And I remember how happy he seemed that it was 1970.

He was born in 1922, and in a way because of that, part of my childhood was spent in the '20s and '30s from all that he told me about from back then. He went to the movie theatre with his ma to hear Garbo speak.  He used to go the corner grocery and for a nickel he could get a Clark bar and a Mars bar. He told me that whenever some kid on his block had one of the dread childhood illnesses like scarlet fever, that house would put a colored sign on their door indicating that they were in quarantine, so beware. He said that when he'd see one of those signs he would cross the street and hold his breath until it was behind him. 

He remembered the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in detail, and the execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was from the Bronx. It was all on the radio. He talked about signing up for the navy after Pearl Harbor, and when I was eight or nine, he told me about the way Japanese Americans were treated, despite their being just as American as anybody else. I remember him saying, “They weren’t rounding up German Americans, and it would have been just as easy to figure out who they were by names and records. And that,” he told me, “is racism. That’s what that is.” 

When I was about seven, he told me about a friend of his, a lady named Mrs. Razorscum. He’d run into her down at the post office one day and had a great time talking with her there. He told me she wanted to meet me. She was someone he knew from a long time ago, and she lived in a place I’d never heard of, which I think he said was called the Bright Kentucky Hotel. 

We had a little Halloween party that year, and some of the neighborhood kids came with some of their parents. My dad had gone off with one of his friends to a bar, and when the doorbell rang in the middle of everything I went to answer it. There stood a lady I’d never met, beaming down at me, and I remember having a feeling about her and asking, “Are you Mrs. Razorscum?” And she said, why yes, she was! She was extremely ugly, with very heavy makeup and huge breasts—what they used to call torpedo tits, because of the pointy brassieres women would wear, I imagine—and she was packed into a flower-print dress and she wore a mink stole. I remember my mother coming up from behind me and exclaiming about how lovely she looked. And I remember at a certain moment, Mrs. Razorscum suddenly took a big handful of her long hair and pulled and it all came off in her hand, and the optical-illusion effect of my dad’s face sort of bubbling up from beneath all her pancake makeup. In the midst of all the hilarity, I remember my ma saying, “Oh, wow, I think you gave her a fever!” And that was the end of the party for me.  

I remember my dad tucking me in that night, a smidgen of makeup still on his face, and telling him that I felt disappointed that there was no Mrs. Razorscum, even though I wasn’t sure that I liked her. But she was real, he said. She’d lived in his favorite radio show from when he was a kid, called Vic and Sade, a show about a family of misfits who lived in a small house halfway up in the next block. Mrs. Razorscum was one of the characters. She was married, but nobody called her husband "Mr. Razorscum," just “Razorscum,” the way guys called each other. It was like Robert Ackley, in one of my dad’s favorite books, The Catcher in the Rye. Nobody called him Robert or Bob, my dad would tell me. Everybody just called him Ackley. And people called Mr. Razorscum "Razorscum."

My dad had “something wrong with him,” in that he had Tourettes Syndrome and something like Aspergers that made him stand out. He didn’t curse, but he repeated other sounds that got in the way of normal life for him sometimes. He was smart but not like other grownups. He was enthralled by the city. We walked and walked and walked. There were still a lot of secondhand bookshops in Manhattan when he came, and he loved Skyline Books on 18th Street. It was a great little bookstore with a cat who liked to drop down from the shelves onto dogs who came in with their people. I used to have Skyline do book searches for me. They had lists of book dealers to call, and it was an efficient system before the internet became what it did. Once I had them look for a book called The Small House Halfway Up in the Next Block, about that old radio show my dad liked. They found one for me, and he was so happy to get it. 

I remember sitting with him in his favorite spaghetti place down in Little Italy talking about Mrs. Razorscum and how unbelievably ugly she was. And when I told him the story, how I remembered him that night, for the thousandth time, we both laughed until we cried. He’d be almost a hundred now if he were still alive, and I wonder all the time what he’d think about everything the world is living through now. And I know he’d have a few things to say about the putzes who stormed the capitol yesterday. He kept all his curse words for stuff like that. 


Down on the street today, a man with his groceries


Copyright Romy AshbyJanuary 7, 2021 



DECEMBER

It’s something, the way everything is so different from what it was, for everybody. Whenever I do go outside I try each time to get a look at the Empire State Building to see how she’s doing and how she looks, standing there in her spot. Sometimes on rainy or foggy days she has a way of disappearing completely, like a magic trick. I know you’re in there, funny old lady. 

A few days ago I read an article written by a person who felt that time had stopped in March, with the pandemic wreaking its havoc, and that March never left. March stayed throughout spring, summer, and fall, and it’s still March now. It made me think of stories I’ve read about the A-bombs dropped on Japan and how the clocks stopped at the moment of the flash. I too feel like March has been here all along. It’s felt like one big long day, but so much has happened. A lot of it I’ve watched from my windows, which face a big avenue where things play out all day and all night. There’s an empty building on one of the corners, covered in graffiti, and that corner has become the neighborhood theatre. 

 

It used to be that I would walk by the Irish Repertory Theatre on weekends and see a lot of old ladies in the little lobby with glasses of wine in their hands. They were good advertising. Once I got a ticket on a whim to see a play with Marsha Mason in it. I remember  looking at the poster and thinking, Oh, I remember her. I’ll get a ticket. She was very funny in it. She played an Irish grandmother. She had a monologue where she described going into a sex shop and buying some kind of gadget. In the audience were all kinds of old ladies, and old men, too. In February, before the lockdown, I went up to the Met with a friend to see Cosi Fan Tutte. The set was Coney Island, and a lot of the supernumeraries were real Coney Island sideshow performers, including a wonderful big snake. 

 

I once held a Coney Island snake for a picture, a sweet lady snake.Two boys had her next to the Cyclone, and they were asking for five dollars to hold her and have them take a polaroid, so I did. I gave the snake a kiss on her cold little cheek. During intermission at the opera, I thought things were looking a little rundown. There was peeling red velvet wallpaper, and when the Swarovski crystal chandeliers were pulled up in to their gold hiding places at curtain time, I saw that there were places in the vault of the ceiling that looked to be water damaged. I thought of the documentary I saw in a movie theatre down near Union Square about the Met, and how those chandeliers came to be because of an ink accident on the plans. And I thought of Leontyne Price, who starred in that movie, and how once upon a time my Ma took me to see her sing.

 

My friend and I sat up in the nosebleeds. I always wear a mask in crowds in winter, I have for a long time because of certain health things, best to be careful et cetera, so I and my friend both wore one. Nearby was a young woman who coughed through the whole opera. It was a very strange cough, and very annoying. I heard a lady offer her a lozenge but she didn’t take it. Later, deep into March, I and my friend wondered about that cough. We wondered the obvious. Because the thing was here then, in New York, we just didn’t know it yet. I thought of two stuffy-looking old queens sitting nearby that night who looked down their noses at us in our masks, and I hope they’re okay.

 

Between the opera and the lockdown I went to the Morgan Library Museum, to the Frick, and out to Coney Island. I took my kitty out there on the train. I also took her to a lot of galleries in January and February, even in the beginning of March. She saw a Yayoi Kusama exhibit of mechanical sculptures and the gallery people were very happy to see her. A man in another gallery told me that lots of dogs come in who seem to enjoy looking at the art. He’d never had a cat visit, he said, but he could see that she was very interested. I started taking her when she was very young to gallery openings, where from her spot on my shoulder she watched people standing and staring at pieces of art. So she did likewise, and while I can’t know what she’s thinking about anything on the walls, anyone can see that she’s interested in what there is to look at.

 

My Coney Island snakie
Since March the empty building on the corner has seen a lot of action. A guy set up camp down there for a while and his friends dropped in to smoke crack. One day a very good tap dancer put down a plank of wood and did a whole show. He was a good singer, too, all numbers from the Great American Songbook.

 

One night I watched a police horse refuse to keep going past a big delivery truck with a box of what looked like sandwiches standing on the tail lift outside the convenience store across the street. The copper on the horse had a terrible time keeping him from stampeding, and the traffic had to creep around them. 

 

And last night it snowed. Outside everything looked like a glass snow globe from the gift shop at the Morgan Library. Up above the windows the pigeons were all bunched in together chuckling and I wondered if they were cold. During the daytime they fly out and wheel around the block, and that’s what interests the kitty most right now.


December 17, 2020

JULY FIRST TWENTY-TWENTY

Once I was taken by a friend to meet Helen Levitt at her apartment on 12thStreet downtown. I liked her right away. She had a big orange kitty called Binky who sat with us while we talked in her living room, which had a skylight. After my first visit, I went to see Helen a lot. I remember us talking about Coney Island, where she said she spent fortunes in quarters riding the Cyclone as a kid. One day we looked through a book of her photos and she told me some of the stories behind them, like the one of a record rolling down the street. She’d set up her shot because she liked how the stores looked, and the record just rolled into the picture by chance. She told me about getting caught in the subway once while sneaking pictures. She had her camera in her lap, and the man sitting across from her who she’d just photographed told her he knew she’d done it. She said, “No I didn’t,” and he said, “I know you did because I have that same camera.” 

At Helen’s place there were books and records stacked everywhere. She liked to sit on the sofa together and read. She liked to eat together and she’d send me with money to an Italian restaurant a few blocks away for take-out. One day I had an appointment not too far from her with what used to be called an analyst, to try her out. The analyst made me uncomfortable because she wouldn’t look me in the eye. After the session I went over to see Helen and told her about it. She said, “Really? What a fucking drag!” I also told her that I’d been to the dentist and it hurt so much that I cried and felt ashamed. She said she’d cried at the dentist too. I said, “You mean as kid?” and she said, “No, I was a grown woman.”

I felt so comfortable on her sofa I’d fall asleep. One evening she said, “Do you want a baked potato?” I said I would like one, and she went and put two big spuds in the oven. She said, “Don’t worry, I’ll wake you up when dinner’s ready.” She used old fashioned potato nails for her baked potatoes, and she had a very old knife that she said she’d had forever. A very good one, she said it was, and it did look like a good one.  She had a rough and tumble way of talking that I liked. She had chutzpah. She went to Erasmus high school. Walker Evans taught her everything about picture taking. She could describe his little house uptown so that I could see it in my mind.

Helen had two favorite things she liked for me to do whenever I went to see her. 

One was having her back rubbed. Her back always hurt, and whenever I rubbed it for her, she’d say, “Warn me before you stop.” One day I rubbed her back while she ate a piece of toast with jam. Afterwards she went into the other room and then came back with a book of her photos. She sat down next to me on the sofa and signed it. Then she said, “I’m givin’ it to you.” Next to her inscription is a little smudge of jam, from her thumb. 

I remember telling Ma about Helen’s sore back and the gift of the book with the jam in it. Ma told her dentist—who had Helen Levitt pictures in his office—what I’d told her, and he said that he would give anything to meet Helen. I told Ma that Helen said she’d cried at the dentist’s office. Ma told me that she never cried at the dentist, but that her old childhood dentist had used an ancient and slow drill on her and that once he left her lying in the chair for an hour while he went out to have his lunch.

Helen’s other favorite thing to have me do was goad Binky into chasing me. She liked to sit on the sofa and laugh while he chased me between her bedroom in the back and the windows on the street side, which he would do if I chased him first and then ran. She asked me to take some pictures of Binky, so I did. She recommended a book to me by Andy Rooney called My War, and wrote it down on a slip of paper, which I still have.

Now and then she told me that her memory was starting to get dicey. She said she felt as old as the Ancient Mariner. I hadn’t known her long enough to tell if her memory was really dicey or not, but one day when we had a date for one o’clock she called and asked if we could make it two instead. I said sure, and went at two. When I got there she scolded me for being an hour late. “Next time call if you’re going to be late,” she said. I apologized and said OK and she forgave me. 

Helen got more and more tired each time I saw her. One day she said, “I’m going to kick off soon,” and some hours later, she did just that.

Ma had a rough and tumble spirit too. She and Helen both loved the animals most. Ten months before she died, Ma adopted a fierce little kitten called Mary. She liked nothing more than to amuse her with a mouse on a string. Ma always said she thought that after leaving this life we either get to meet everyone we ever wished we could, or it would be the best sleep we ever had, and she was fine with either one. But if it turned out to be the former the first thing she planned on doing was calling all the beasts she’d ever known, and there were lots of them.

A picture I took of Helen's kitty Binky in 2009


Happy Birthday, Ma. I wrote down these memories for you as your present, and I’m celebrating your day by amusing Marykitty with the mousie you gave her. I love you.

July 1, 2020 Copyright Romy Ashby

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CHELSEA


Not far from me lives my friend, the wonderful Barbara Maier, New York’s most treasured voice teacher. The Chelsea Hotel stands between us, but I can picture her living room. She can see the Empire State Building in all its majesty from her window.

Bobbi Jo at Radio City in 2007, going to see Debbie Harry.
The night that I met her years ago at a performance by Tammy Faye Starlite (who I feel lucky to have as a friend as well), Barbara mentioned that she’d come to New York as a young singer in the 1950s, and that she grew up in a little town in Indiana called Boonville. I thought of my old friend Larry, also from Indiana, and I said, “Oh! Do you know Larry Camp?” Of course she wouldn’t know Larry, because Indiana is a big state. But she did know him! She just hadn’t seen him in fifty years. She said: “Larry Camp was the cutest little boy in the world!" 



When I got home I called Larry, and he plotzed. “Barbara Maier! You mean little Bobbi Jo? We had the same piano teacher!” He said he'd always thought Bobbi Jo was an absolutely beautiful girl, and a sweetheart.
Larry Camp in 1945
Bobbi Jo at 7, when she started piano lessons
For decades the two of them had lived less than three miles apart here in Manhattan and didn’t know it. I remember their reunion at Barbara’s. Her husband Joe served a delicious lasagna and sang an aria for us in his beautiful, deep voice. Larry and Barbara talked about Norma Maurer, their piano teacher, and that period of time in Boonville, in the ‘40s. They spoke of Norma’s old house with its porch, and I pictured an old lady in black setting the metronome going. Larry said following Bobbi Jo at lesson time always made him feel hopeless about his own piano future. 

A couple of months ago, on February 10th, 2020, I went to Bobbi Jo’s 85th birthday party at Joe’s Pub downtown, the best birthday party I’ve ever attended. All varieties of singers, her fabulous students, performed to celebrate her and to raise money for the Holy Apostles soup kitchen. It was a ball. We couldn’t have imagined the whole city being shut down in five weeks’ time, not daring even to sing together. Right now, Bobbi Jo is giving her lessons via Skype. 

My favorite pianist, Angela Hewitt, who I’ve been very lucky to see perform here in New York, is in quarantine in London. She records videos of herself playing pieces on her phone, and posts them for everyone. Listening to her play, seeing her window where birds are singing outside, I found myself wondering about the inside of Norma Maurer’s house. So I called Bobbi Jo, who has an elephant memory, to ask her. Our wee interview, below:

***

Romy: Listening to Governor Cuomo speak recently, I was reminded of Fiorello LaGuardia reading Dick Tracy comics on the radio during the Depression for the kids.  I thought of FDR, too. Certain leaders have a way of comforting a nation in hard times, and Cuomo seems to be doing that right now.

Bobbi Jo: I think so too. He tells the truth, but he’s developed this really kind approach that doesn’t scare us, he doesn’t hit us over the head with it. I remember when FDR died. I was coming down the steps of the Heavenly Memorial Presbyterian church after a junior choir practice when someone yelled from the street: “The president just died!” I remember that as plain as if it were right now. I loved FDR. All the Maiers were Republicans, but when I was little I insisted on having a picture of FDR on the wall. He reminded me a little of my grandfather, I think, and I would have liked to crawl up in his lap and have him tell me stories. I loved listening to his voice on the radio on the Fireside Chats.

Do you remember what your piano teacher’s house was like inside?



Oh, very well. Norma lived in a typical small-town Victorian house with her mother. The first room inside the door was the parlor where Norma gave her lessons on an upright piano. The second room was the sitting room where we would wait if we were early. I remember heavy old Victorian furniture and that it was always dark in there. I sat in a very big chair to wait, and there were magazines on the table. Norma’s mother would come in and talk to me, and I had to be very polite with her.

And what about Norma herself?



Well, she was a spinster lady and very proper and primly dressed. She must have been in her thirties, but to me she always seemed like an old woman.

Oh! I always imagined her to be old, from you and from Larry both. What about her personality?



She was kind, and as a teacher she was gentle, but she didn’t inspire in me a desire to really do well. I know she went to St. Mary of the Woods, a women’s college in Indiana, but I don’t remember her having any real passion for music. She never said, “Oh, I love this composer!” Or, “Isn’t this a beautiful phrase?” Her lessons were mechanical. Put your fingers here and do this and this. I think she became a piano teacher because that’s what she could do to make a living, and to tell the truth, I never enjoyed the lessons.

You remind me of a line of poetry my old friend, the painter Loren MacIver, used to paraphrase by e.e. cummings*: “Gee I like to think of death. Death never says, ‘It’s time for your piano lesson.’”



Hahaha! That’s very funny. 

Do you play for your students when you give lessons? 

 I do play quite a bit for my students, but just to get by. I’m not a born pianist, but for me music has always been such a passion.


 *** 

How is it that at 85, Bobbi Jo is without question one of the youngest and most enthusiastic people I know? She’s five years younger than the Empire State Building! And while Bobbi Jo may be a little slip of a lady, when I think about it, she’s a lot like Madame Empire in her presence. Both are formidable, they're classy, they’ve seen so much, they personify the great city of New York. 

When I listened to Queen Elizabeth address her nation a few days ago and she mentioned her first national address, given in 1940, I thought: Bobbi Jo was five years old when she gave that address!  The Empire State Building was only ten! And isn’t it something, that the Queen is still here, that she’s still the Queen, addressing the world at a time like this? 

I wish good health, patience, and fortitude for everyone who comes across this little post.

With wonderful Larry Camp a few years ago at his old loft on Lower Broadway.
He's thankfully safe and sound out in California now.

7 April 2020

The actual poem by e.e. cummings was called, “Gee I like to Think of Dead”, and the line was: “Dead never says, my dear, time for your music lesson.”

CAPTAIN BOB


Today I got a nice email from Lola Star, out at Coney Island, reminding me of Captain Bob. I wrote this essay in 2008 after running into Bob in the city one day.  I'm posting it for him,  for Lola, and for the anniversary of Sept 11, 2001, which is upon us once again. —Romy

As I was coming out of the F Train at 23rdStreet yesterday I saw my old friend Captain Bob up ahead of me in the crowd, and I hurried to catch up with him on the stairway to the street. I had my camera with me so I took a picture of him standing on Sixth Avenue, and then I took one of the homemade tour guide badge he had pinned to his shirt. 

Bob's tour guide badge, August 2008 (Photo Romy Ashby)
I hadn’t run into Bob in the subway since sometime last November, when he told me all about the costume he was making for the contest out at Coney Island on New Year’s Day. It was going to have satin pantaloons, a resplendent vest and frock coat, and stockings made of a material, called crinklecorn, meant to resemble the skin of a sea creature. He found almost everything he needed at the Salvation Army, and all of the cutting and sewing he was doing himself. The pièce de résistance would be the big fish that he would wear on his head, with scales made of artichoke leaves painted with iridescent nail polish. He bought five boxes of artichokes at a big market somewhere on Kings Highway, and when he told the produce manager what he was going to do with them the guy gave him a discount.  He still needed some feathers, Bob told me, but he only needed a few. He had just called one feather dealer who told him he only sold feathers by the ton, to which he had replied, “What does a ton of feathers look like? The Empire State Building?” 

Captain Bob on the F Train to Coney Island, November 2007, describing his forthcoming costume  (Photo Romy Ashby)

I can’t count the times I’ve run into Captain Bob at the flea markets around town. He’s always on the lookout for some old book about Vaudeville or a yard of fabric just the right color and texture for something he’s making. He always has his drawing pad full of mermaids, and he always wears shorts, even on the coldest day of winter. He's someone I see pretty regularly without having a plan to meet. I’ve been running into him for years. He’s just all over the city, at all times of the day. 

It used to be that I knew where he was almost all of the time, when he was working the little tin cabana on the barge over at the river where the old lightship Frying Pan and the fireboat John J. Harvey were tied. Every evening the same collective of characters would show up and sit around the little cabana drinking beer and talking. From a distance you could see Captain Bob’s white sea captain’s hat glowing in the lamplight as he moved about opening beers for the regulars. 
The John J. Harvey and the Frying Pan, 2007 (Photo Romy Ashby)

I liked to sit on the bridge of the Frying Pan and watch the sun set over New Jersey. I didn’t talk to Captain Bob much back then, but he always waved to me when I came and went. I would see him on 23rdStreet a lot in the early mornings, pulling a red wagon loaded with scrap wood for his fire. It was after September 11th, 2001 that I got to know him.

I remember one particular evening, shortly after that date, when I went over to sit in my spot on the Frying Pan. Fighter planes circled ceaselessly overhead, and down by the Statue of Liberty an ominous plume darkened the sky. The old fireboat John J. Harvey had been called out of retirement to pump water from the Hudson to spray at the pile of the World Trade Center. There was a spectacular sunset that evening, and I watched the  approach of the big white hospital ship Comfort as she made her solemn way up the Hudson, with what looked like the entire crew standing at the railings looking at the city.  It was a heartbreakingly beautiful evening. There was nobody else on the lightship Frying Pan, but down in the cabana was Captain Bob, and the few people who gathered around his wood fire burning in a metal drum.  

In the following weeks I went to sit on the lightship every evening. It was the only place that felt something like okay, and Captain Bob was always there on the barge with his fire going. He rigged up a turntable and played crackly old Marlene Dietrich records. Sitting there, one could almost believe that there was no trouble in the world at all. 

One night Captain Bob told me how after eating sturgeon at a cookout with some Gowanus Indians, Peter Stuyvesant leaned over the bow of his ship, anchored in the Hudson, and threw up.  “The sturgeon just didn’t agree with him,” Bob said. “How do you know that?” I asked him, and he said, “I read it in the ship’s log in the museum up the river at Tarrytown.” 

At Christmastime Bob made his own sugarplums, and he cooked steaks for people on the fire. He said he found perfectly good steaks in the trash behind D’Agostino’s. He cooked hamburgers that he got in the same way, and rare as hell, too, but they never made him or any of his friends sick. 

Bob left the barge in 2002 and went out to Coney Island, where he painted himself a sign and made himself a tour guide. The barge has moved to 26th Street, and most of the boats are still there, but without Captain Bob it isn’t the same. The little scene there always seemed too good to be true, and it was. 

Bob and his sign, Coney Island (Photo Romy Ashby)

Bob gets his mail at Mermaid Avenue, but when anyone asks where he lives, he says, “My address is ‘One Atlantic Ocean.’” Yesterday he told me that the day before, he swam all the way out to Breezy Point and back. Then he gave me his card and reminded me that he still does walking tours on Saturdays and Sundays at noon and two. Anyone who wants to can find him waiting at Nathan’s, on Stillwell Avenue, out at Coney Island.


Captain Bob's costume, Coney Island, January 2008 (Photos Romy Ashby)

22 August 2008

It's been a while since anyone has seen Bob McCoy, although the story went that he was in a nursing home. Any updated information about Captain Bob would be most welcome. 
copyright Romy Ashby 9 September 2019

THE FRIEND I NEVER MET, GEORGE HODGMAN

Walking home not long ago, I passed a building where a dentist’s office occupied the ground floor forever, and saw that it was gone. The window sills were bare of the tchotchkes that I’d always noticed, including a little plastic pope who stood looking out at the trees across the street. Through the old-fashioned blinds I saw the empty walls and the floor covered in debris, and I wondered what the final count was for all the teeth drilled there during the life of the dentist’s office.  I thought of other dentists’ windows that I’ve looked in all across the city, and the stab of angst I always feel upon getting a glimpse of some poor person in the chair. I thought of the one time I felt truly envious of a photographer, Vivian Cherry, for her photo of a man lying in the dentist's chair taken from the train on the 3rdAvenue El, in 1955. I wondered if it was pure chance, or if she had noticed the dentist’s office and then rode the train until she got a photo she liked. It’s such a fleeting opportunity, seeing something from a train that way. Once in the subway, my train paused beside another one for a few seconds and I waved to a man who smiled and waved back. And then the trains got moving again, downtown and uptown.

3rd Avenue El (Man at Dentist), 1955
Not long ago, my friend Maureen mentioned a man she knew and liked who died suddenly. His name was George Hodgman. He wrote a book called Bettyville, about taking care of his old mother, Betty, in the little town he’d come from in Missouri. I looked him up and I ordered one.  A lot resonated for me in his book, having looked after my own Ma up until recently when she died. No amount of love makes it an easy thing, but it’s good to do if one can, and it seemed to me that George did a very good job taking care of Betty. In a little feature made about him when his book came out, he made a remark about being the Mick Jagger of eldercare, and I laughed. What a sweetheart.

I read in the Times that George died in my neighborhood, and that it was suicide. He died right around the corner, on West 23rdStreet, during the last heat wave while I sat inside next to the air conditioner. It made me feel very sad. His face was familiar. We must have passed on the street. Reading his book while knowing that he died made it especially sad. In the book, he wrote that he didn’t believe in suicide. He also mentioned not being able to imagine a world without Betty. 

A lot of what he wrote about New York was very familiar, too. He mentioned looking into a certain window on a certain block, and marveling at a beautiful wall of books. I thought, I know that window, George! I pass that window all the time.When he described the exquisite fish tanks that used to stand near the windows of Barney’s on Seventh Avenue, I remembered going in more than a few times to look at those very fish. Barney’s had a way of displaying priceless-looking jewelry inside those fish tanks that was truly magical. And just buying a lipstick there always put a whiff of glamour on the rest of the day. 

One day not long after George died I had a dentist appointment. My dentist is a lady with a ground floor office, but there aren’t windows to look into. She and her assistants have gentle hands, so going there is not a terrible thing. The dentist also told me that I can bring my kitty with me any time I feel like it, which is a very comforting thought. On the way, I walked along the iron railings that protect Gramercy Park from people without a key, and I had the thought that I like looking into the park and seeing no people. The sky was gray and stormy over the Chrysler Building gleaming in the distance uptown, and Gramercy Park looked like a big, living, Joseph Cornell box. Near the dentist’s, I passed the windows of a therapist’s office I always look into and saw him, the therapist, seated across from a man. The therapist always keeps the room so dim that it’s almost dark, and I’ve never seen an expression on his face. He’s an archetype. He probably charges a fortune.

In his book I learned that George and Betty both hated cats and that he wasn’t always outwardly the warmest of people by nature. Had he seen me approaching on the block with the wall of books carrying Honey on my shoulder he would probably have crossed the street. Even so, I still think I would have liked him very much. Honey saw that wall of books too, and she saw the man who pushes the ladder along the shelves. She watched people getting haircuts and gaped at the big Greek cat who lives in the florist on 8thAvenue. Honey loved looking in windows in New York. Sometimes when I lifted her a bit to get a better look into someone’s living room, they spotted her. But nobody ever seems to mind a peeper if the peeper is a kitty. 

I hope that the news was wrong about how George died. The Times is not infallible. I remember an old queen telling me once that no one is really in the know if they aren’t reading the Post. And more and more, I think the old queen was right. It was his business, if it’s true, but I hope George didn’t commit suicide. I hope he didn’t suffer that depth of sadness. I saw that there was a service for him in a pretty little church, and that he was laid to rest next to Betty. And I imagine that he would probably like that.

August 9, 2019