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


  1. Romy, please explain to me why I have tars in my eyes and a lump in my throat? You are such a splendid unaffected writer, and you never stand in the way of your subjects. And what subjects!

  2. I have been following your Walker in the City for a while. My dad was a photographer in NYC and admired Ms. Levitt and Nina Leen very much. He did developing for photographers as a side job. Thank you for this lovely post. I love the everydayness of your writing. Take care and thank you for your writing skills and vision.