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

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