It’s all jumbled up in my memory: tastes, smells, sights, sounds. The stale air of the subway stations, the extra chewy bagels and buttery lox; fragrant rye bread and piles of pastrami and corned beef at the deli; taxis whooshing by, steam coming up from from manholes in the street; hot, hissing radiators, bulky snow clothes, mittens on a string; having to take the elevator up to the apartment, the nice security man who drew us pictures of Disney cartoon characters, new playmates who lived in small apartments; Gordon, a new best friend. Mumps, mustard plasters, nits; Kosher Chinese food, the Marilyn Monroe “Seven Year Itch” moment my mother reported when she had her full skirt billow up around her in front of a construction crew. The day I had a stomach ache that kept getting worse, the one I didn’t tell anyone about for a few hours because I didn’t want to get in trouble for eating too much candy at school that day. My babysitting neighbor with a copy of Dr. Spock who finally made me bend this way and that way when the hurting got so bad I had to tell, and when I couldn’t bend to the right, she called my parents. My late-night ride in a taxi with my mom and dad when my side hurt so much; my dad and I both cried, and the surgeon, called in from a night at the opera, arrived at the hospital in his formal evening wear — long cape with a colorful lining, top hat — and assured me that I would be fine but I needed to have an operation to take out my appendix. I told my parents not to worry and then the memory fades to black. A row of black stitches that itched until they got pulled out. A scar on my belly.
Lots of parties with grownup friends of my parents. Fancy sandwiches with ruffled toothpicks that we collected on the sly. Fur coats and nice perfume on the ladies. Lots of smoking. A Passover seder with new friends in the apartment building. My first taste of Manischewitz wine. Falling asleep at the table. My dad, touch typing like a fiend on a borrowed typewriter, discovering several pages in that it was a Hebrew keyboard (or was it Hungarian? Either way.)
Another Dad story: One day he was rushing out to move the car to the other side of the street like everyone did, when a big Irish cop waved him off. “No need to move the car today, sir. Don’t ya know, it’s Tisha B’Av?”
My first drama class: we got to go on the stage after school and pretend to be somewhere else: the jungle, the circus, anywhere. I loved that class! Improv, pretending, costumes — in front of a group of teachers-in- training who cheered us on. In our neighborhood, we had big churches and a park. Morningside Drive.
Monuments, skyscrapers, Grant’s Tomb. Alma Mater and Butler Library at Columbia. Cars and taxis honking, hustle and bustle on the street, people talking really fast, especially the big girls at the dance studio. Shopping at Alexander’s in the Bronx. Going to the country — in New Jersey– to visit friends of my parents, running to catch fireflies in jars with the kids while the adults stood around in the kitchen drinking most of the night. Side trips to New England, seeing fishing boats, and Philadelphia (I think) for a Bar Mitzvah where I got my head stuck between two iron fence posts. It was hot there .Apartment neighbors we shared a wall with: they had two little girls too. Thumping the wall between our apartments: shave and a haircut, two-bits. Getting my finger caught in the elevator doors. Accidentally tipping over a pot of hot chocolate at a friend’s apartment, falling off the wobbly stool. Seeing a man through a grate in the park. Didn’t understand what he was showing us until much later. Missing Julie Andrews in “My Fair Lady” and seeing her understudy instead because our original tickets were for the time I was in the hospital and we had to postpone.
The store windows at Christmas time, each one a winter wonderland. Central Park. The story about the typewriters: a guy shows up at the school across the street, the school where we went. He walks into the office and says, “I’m here to pick up the typewriters.” So he walks out with all the typewriters and is never heard from again. My mom bought earrings at an art fair in Greenwich Village. She kept them forever: screw back earrings made of fired clay, one pair speckled with green, one with orange. She bought other earrings too. Things to complement her newly colored red hair. She worked in a Jewish day school that year. They had a lot of holidays. My dad took us to a diner that had railroad tracks running along the counter. When your order came up, a little train came out of the kitchen with a plate perched on its own car, and stopped in front of you. Ever since then, I’ve yearned to have my food delivered by a train.
A neighbor taught my sister to embroider. She made me a sampler with my name on it and a border of flowers all around. I would still have it, if not for the fire that happened many years later. We dressed up a lot for parties and other special occasions: hats and gloves, full-skirted dresses with petticoats, and shiny party shoes. I especially liked the bon voyage parties on the huge ships, when people tossed serpentine streamers and confetti. Just like in the movie, A Thousand Clowns: Bon Voyage, Charlie! Have a wonderful time!