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

 

6 comments:

  1. It's always a treat to enter your world, dear one

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  2. What a tranquil essay in these turbulent times of ours. Romy, I too knew Loren MacIver and marveled at her staggering accomplishments. I remember the piano in the corner and the sunlight pouring through the many paned sky light. Hers was the epitome of a fantastical artists studio. I like how you regarded meeting Willard Roosevelt as "those up close brushes with history".

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  3. Thank you, Ralph. She did indeed have staggering accomplishments. I miss that lady. And I think I've met you there in her studio.

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  4. How wonderful. After reading this I went on a binge going backwards through your posts. From the worrysome possiblity of waking up liking Barry Manilow to the unfinding of the "Do not lose" envelop. I am in awe. This blog is the best thing ever. Romy, you are a treasure.

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    1. Oh, thank you so much, Dee! I think somewhere in these essays there's a sighting of you on your harp-cycle. You're the treasure.

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  5. There's been a lot going on the past five or so years, but I'm happy to rediscover Walkers in the City. Such great stories, and I have so many to catch up on! Like remembering an old friend suddenly and running into her on the street...

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