Regina & Charlie as they looked in
The Two Character Play by Tennessee Williams
Today my friend Regina called me from the street and told me that she and Charlie (who is also my friend as well as being Regina’s husband) were walking downtown to Canal Street to buy a radio. When she told me this, it struck me as such an old-fashioned thing to be doing. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone mention going to buy a radio. Even a sentence like, “I heard it on the radio” has become a rarity unless the person saying it is talking about the car radio. 

Regina told me that on Canal Street there’s a guy who sells old radios in good working condition, and that the last time they bought a radio was in 1980. I found it comforting to hear that they were going to buy it on Canal Street, because Canal Street in my own consciousness is a place where people have always gone to buy things like a radio, or a burglar alarm, or pretty much anything utilitarian. I don’t remember the last time I had simple radio, but it was long ago. It’s interesting how some things can fade into obscurity almost imperceptibly, while other things never seem to change at all.

Last week, as I walked westward on 22ndStreet towards the river, I passed a big public schoolyard just as recess was happening. The sound of recess is exactly the same as when I was a kid, with lots of yelling and shouting and kids racing around in circles. The only difference with these kids is that they were all wearing masks, which I was glad to see with everything going on at this moment in time, because wearing masks is smart, considerate, and they definitely help lessen the spread of disease. 

The kids were all wearing their masks but other than that they were no different in their playing than kids were back in the time when it was common for people to go and buy a radio. I thought of my dad, who was born in 1922, and his stories of quarantine and childhood illnesses that were common when he was a kid. People would put a little card on their door if there was a certain illness there, to warn other people off. My dad told me how he would see a card for something like Scarlet Fever on a door, and he would hold his breath and cross the street. He would be hurrying home from school so as not to miss his favorite show on the radio, which was called Vic & Sade


Something else he told me about the radio was how sometimes, in between shows, there was dead air. Just silence. He remembered sitting on the living room floor of his house in 1936 waiting for the execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the Lindberg baby kidnapper, and how there was just nothingness with the occasional remark by an announcer, saying things like, “The Governor has not given a stay of execution.” And finally after a long silence, the announcer’s voice stating, “Hauptmann is dead,” and then a sigh of relief from my father’s mother, sitting in the chair near the big wooden radio.


On 22ndStreet I followed a postman pushing his cart piled with mail past the schoolyard, looking pretty much the way postmen always have, and I remembered a funny postman who used to come to my coffee wagon every day on Broad Street across from the Stock Exchange. He had a long gray beard and his name was Allan. At a certain point he told me that in his building on Staten Island there was an apartment available that he thought I could probably get. The thing is, he told me, an old lady, his good friend, had lived there for many decades and she had recently died. He said she always paid the rent—which was very low—in cash. This was in the 1980s, when things like paying the rent in cash still happened, and Allan’s idea was for me to come live in the old lady’s apartment, keep paying the rent in cash, and that way the landlord would be none the wiser. So I went over to see the apartment, since Allan had the key. The building was in the town of St. George, on a hill above the ferry landing. It was a handsome but somewhat run-down building of the deco era, and Allan told me that once upon a time, Paul Newman had lived there.  


The apartment itself was a lovely little place in a time warp somewhere between the 1940s and ‘50s, with a beautiful view of Manhattan and the orange ferries passing each other on the water. On a table beside the sofa was a framed photograph of a young woman—the lady herself Allan said—taken just after she’d arrived in New York from Scotland. She had a pleasant, freckled face, and she’d worked as a waitress around the New York City courthouse all her life. She’d never married. And sitting on the sofa was the lady’s orange tabby cat. I sat beside the kitty and told her that if I were to come and live there, it would always be her place first. Had it really been possible, I would have done it. I still lived all over the place then, and I would have liked to live there with the kitty and the young Scottish girl in the photo. But of course it didn’t come to pass. The landlord knew the truth, and Allan took in the kitty. 


I’ll always remember that day, the way past and present somehow came together seamlessly in the little apartment on Staten Island, the way it did as I passed the playground on 22ndStreet. Someday, I thought, these kids will be the age that I am now, and they’ll remember the mask time the way my dad remembered scarlet fever, and talk about it in just the same way.

1 comment:

  1. Perfectly realized: if it were a painting, it couldn't be more memorable.