These four numbers are the sum of the world where I grew up. My house number; 1125 Park avenue. I lived there from 1960 to 1978. I don’t remember anyplace before and when my mother moved to a smaller rental apartment on York avenue, my “room” was a converted dining alcove.
In the early years there was an Irish doorman named Paul. His long coat had epaulets and he wore a stiff hat with a brim. When he hailed a cab it was with a mighty silver whistle. A uniformed elevator man took me up to the fifteenth floor and down again to the lobby or to the second floor where my best friend Laura lived. He knew all of us by name and the names of everybody’s dogs. There was a service elevator with an elevator man too. The service elevator was for our maid (yes, we called Eleanor a maid at the time). It was for the milkman, who brought glass bottles of milk and cottage cheese, the dry cleaning that was delivered from Black and White Cleaners, and for groceries from Gristede’s on Lexington and eighty-eighth street. It was also for Virginia who came once a month to do heavy cleaning. It was also for meat that was delivered from the butcher in East Harlem who my mother called several mornings a week from the phone in her bedroom to place her order.
The building had a bike room crowded with kids bicycles and dusty outgrown baby carriages. It is also home to flexible flyer sleds and rusty scooters. Each apartment also had a storage room, closed with metal gates and a padlock. Families relegated their large, leather suitcases, flexible flyer sleds, cribs or old golf clubs. It was always dark and musty in the storage area, a bare bulb or two encased in a metal cage, the only lighting.
There were three wings, A, B, C. We lived on the A wing, it was of course the best, I was convinced. We lived in 15 A. Above us was the Penthouse. We actually lived on 14 however, since there was no 13 as that would have been considered bad luck. The Penthouse was home to a portly family. Dad was a physician, and there were two portly sons. Mom had a late in life pregnancy, but no one realized it until she brought home a baby girl. She never looked pregnant due to her portliness.
When the elevator stopped at our floor the door opened onto a small foyer with one apartment on each side. Ours was the one to the right, the “B” apartment was to the left. There was a black and white marble floor and art that my parents had placed there that was considered appropriate to look at while waiting for the elevator but not good enough to go in the apartment. This consisted of several Hieronymus Bosch prints; including The Garden of Eden and Hell. I spent hours over the years in increments of several minutes, mesmerized by these prints. Their imagery forever etched in memory as I waited for the elevator to go to school, to ballet class, to visit Laura, or go to ride my bike.
My mother rarely locked the front or the back door, thinking that because the elevator man had to bring the individual directly to your floor that is was safe. While this was usually the case, we were robbed on at least two occasions of silver and some jewelry. Even this did not stop her from leaving the door unlocked in spite of my father’s protestations.
Eleanor lived in Brooklyn, a place I had never seen. She was from Jamaica. There were years when she “lived in”, and then as my brother and I got older, she lived out, and came on the subway everyday. She often stopped at Cake Masters and brought something for me as well, a muffin or small piece of pastry in a waxy paper bag. When Eleanor lived in she had a small room and a bathroom off of the kitchen. Her room was like another world for me. It had a distinct odor of Tiger Balm that she kept in a small tin on the old dresser my father had placed in the room. There was a single bed with a chenille bedspread, and a metal lamp on a wooden nightstand. She had a small black and white television at the foot of the bed on the dresser top. It was here that I watched “All My Children” and Gidget. Her bathroom was a narrow space. It had a tub and shower that she also used for drying hand washing of my mother’s. The sink was small and stained.
Sometimes the phone rang for her during the long afternoons. Our phone number was Templeton (TE) 1-7288. If I picked it up I knew it was usually Hyacinth or sometimes the deep Jamaican lilt of a man’s voice asking for “Dawkins”, this was her last name. Even when I tried to eavesdrop, their cadences and dropped vowels made it impossible for me to understand.
Eleanor cleaned our eight room apartment every day. Every day she made the beds, did the laundry, mopped the kitchen floors, dragged around the vacuum, scoured the bathtubs and toilets and put away what ever we did not. Although I was tidy as was my father, my mother and brother were not. I usually made my bed and spent time doing my own hand wash and hanging up of leotards and tights. My brother left piles of dirty clothes and toys strewn across the floor of his room. My mother had an adult version of this, the floor of her walk in closet was littered with piles of discarded, old cashmere turtlenecks and black wool pants. Our curly white poodle Morgan could usually be found nesting in a corner atop some of these garments. Above my parents bedroom and her closet was the Penthouse terrace. There was always a leak somewhere, causing wet areas and cracks to appear on their ceiling and a moldy odor in her closet. There were also huge water bugs causing me to startle and scream when I came across one in her closet or once on top of a pile of napkins in a kitchen drawer.
My mother had a beautiful old carved mahogany bureau with a pink and white swirled marble top. A huge carved gilded mirror hung above the dresser. The dresser top was cluttered with small photos and a porcelain box. The top drawer was a cluttered mess of silk scarves, broken jewelry, lipstick stained tissues, belts that no longer fit her waist and expired passports. The drawers below held an only slightly neater collection of nightgowns, sweaters, stockings and more scarves.
My father had something I was told was called a “highboy”. It was a tall carved wooden dresser that held all of his personal effects and clothing. On it’s surface he had a small wooden box that held cufflinks, and a picture of himself as a barrister in a white powdered wig. The drawers held boxer shorts, tall black dress socks, shirts folded with the red cellophane tape from the Chinese laundry and stacks of white tee shirts. Suits hung in his own closet as did his few non-work items. He had a navy blazer with a Trinity College, Cambridge University patch on it. He also had a tweed jacket with leather elbow patched sleeves. My mother seemed to take up most of the space both emotionally and with her scattered belongings. There was an upholstered chaise lounge near the windows where she would sit in the afternoons with a cup of tea and the latest New Yorker. Next to it was a white wood stand that held a large telephone and the White and Yellow Pages as well as her worn address book with its illegible names and numbers scribbled in felt tipped pen. Once, I had dared my brother to write on the white wood with a turquoise crayon. He had done so and I immediately called out loudly to my mother who was in the shower to tell her what he had done.
My parents room and the living room faced Park avenue, the cabs cruising up and down, the trees in the middle and the “Brick”Church just one block north were seen from the window.
Their bed was actually two twin beds with one teak headboard, and a brass hook at the bottom connecting them. When made up with the large bedspread the beds appeared to be one King sized bed. I thought all parents had a bed like theirs. My mother slept with several pink rollers in her hair, a satin mask over her eyes and strange waxy earplugs in her ears to block out what little street noise penetrated the fifteenth floor.
On days off from school after my father had left for his office, I would sometimes take his spot and watch television while my mother did what I referred to as her “Londin’s”. She would call the butcher, the pharmacy, and place the morning call to her own mother, just thirty blocks south in her “Tower” apartment at the Sherry Netherland. When it could be delayed no longer, she rose to shower and dress in the Park ave. matron appropriate uniform of the day. This included stockings with a garter belt, a girdle, a suit skirt and jacket with a jeweled pin on the lapel. If it was winter, this was finished with a mink coat and leather handbag that she rarely remembered to close fully. A mink hat was sometimes added if she had to attend a charity meeting or lunch that she abhorred. My mother much prefered a piece of pickled herring out of a jar, or a tuna sandwich and a TAB drunk from the pink can.
Once dressed and a few words about the day were exchanged with Eleanor in the kitchen, my mother descended the elevator to complete her errands in the neighborhood. She might cross north to 91st street and step into Schmidt Pharmacy to purchase toothpaste or refill a prescription. It was here that I also went alone to buy last minute birthday party gifts, always consisting of Tinkerbell powder or when a bit older, Jean Nate body splash. Sometimes she brought a my father’s black wingtip shoes to the shoe repair on Madison and 92nd and visited the small lending library next door.
When I went with her we would go to the Society Library on East 79th street where we had a membership. We would browse the dim and dusty stacks, bringing home books to peruse for the next few weeks. If it was Fall, we might go for school shoes at Indian Walk on Madison and 75th street where Mr. Adler was always there. Afterwards we went to Zitomer’s up the block. At the counter we ordered egg creams and BLT’s and my mother instructed me on the lingo of the short order chef; “Adam and Eve on a raft”, among her favorites. We might take a taxi to Saks Fifth Avenue to the girls department for back to school clothes or a party dress. It seemed to me that I never made it out of the 4-6x department even though my tastes gravitated to the Junior Miss. Here, we were always helped by Mrs. Goldfarb. It was my mother who once quietly pointed out the faded numbers tattooed on her inner arm. My first Holocuast lesson had begun while trying on jumpers in the girls fitting room.
When finished it was always “Charge and Send Please”, my mother having no left over tolerance for having purchases wrapped or bagged. We took a taxi home and she went to her chaise lounge and waited for Eleanor to bring her a cup of tea which she drank while Morgan sat on her lap. It was years before I realized that I could in fact take home with me what I bought without waiting days for the UPS man to deliver it.
I went to my floral carpeted bedroom to listen to records of The Nutcracker or Swan Lake or perhaps called Laura; EN (Enright) 2-2436 and we arranged for a hasty game of school to take place in her huge walk in closet that we pretended was a one room schoolhouse.