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Lefferts House

img_2224There was storytelling when I got to the Lefferts house, which was appropriate.  PJ was quite the storyteller.

At first I couldn’t find the damn place because New York City doesn’t like to reveal the locations of anything in its parks.  Just go in and relax!  This attitude is guaranteed not to relax me, but I did accidentally run into a rock with a marker about the Revolutionary War, you know, cool.

img_2214And finally I saw the house.  I came in via the backyard, which was full of kids playing with hoops and sticks like they didn’t know that isn’t fun anymore, and kids listening to a storyteller wrap up a story.
In the backyard, they had a “plank sidewalk,” which they used to have bunches of in Brooklyn.  Toll sidewalks.  They had lots of plants labeled: flax, berry bushes.  I rounded the building to go in the front door.  The side was peeling.  The place looked like it had seen better days, but in a nice, kid-friendly Brooklyn shabbiness.

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Inside they had just one room set up with period furnishings, where I demanded a helpless volunteer take my picture.

In the hall were plaques explaining the Lefferts family got their land from the Dutch, and they proceeded to run the biggest farm in Brooklyn.  I’m sorry, Flatbush.  Brooklyn began with a bunch of small towns that grew together, and Flatbush was one of them.

While slavery was legal in New York, there were some big farms on Long Island, and they grew wheat and other crops that required big parcels of land.  Brooklyn went from forested to bare, as people cut down trees to create farms and to burn in their fireplaces.

When slavery became illegal in New York, the Lefferts and other owners of big farms started leasing their land in small parcels, to white people, who grew smaller crops (say, potatoes) to sell in the city.

Today, the neighborhood is called Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.  I lived there for a month when I was looking for a job out here.  It’s a nice, relatively affordable area, mostly African-American.  Ta-Nahisi Coates bought a place there, but then he changed his mind.  The neighborhood responded to this with understanding at his interest in privacy, and disdain that he thought people cared where he lived.  Or so it seemed from my reading of the neighborhood Facebook group.  (The neighborhood is close enough to where I live that I read it still.)

img_2231When I went back outside, the storyteller was warming back up for her closing story.  She asked people to come up and take instruments from her stash, and it sounded like she meant kids, but anyway I took a shaker thing and she told me it was from Botswana.
Some kids went up to stand next to her while she told this last story about a gourd that didn’t want to become an instrument but got over it.  One girl was dancing like a nut, and her mom looked both amused and embarrassed.

img_2232We shook our shakers during the story, a piano player was playing all behind this, like we were in church, and around the time I thought she couldn’t thank anyone else for being there, she was done, and someone else gave her an orchid for her twenty years of storytelling, which was real sweet.

 

 

 

pj-photoWe are currently at $210 in the scholarship fund, and with only $90 more, I’ll get to drink where Lincoln and Grant and Teddy Roosevelt drank, without even wearing a fake mustache.  They let ladies in now.  You can make this happen!

 

Swann’s Way

img_2186I picked eleven dresses from the racks that followed the whole, long storefront. Some of them it was difficult to see in the full harsh sun, the black ones were reverse ghosts, what were their necklines, their patterns?  My arm hurt with their weight by the time I carried them to the dressing room.  Latch them on a bar, the young man counts ad gives me a circle of plastic that says “10.”

Dresses black, pink, gold, whorled, blobby, black and loose in the bust, heavy damask, one won’t go over my hips, one gapes around my waist.

This shop, in Greenpoint, I knew because Greenpoint is where I used to work, when I had the worst job in the world.  I took a roundabout course from the subway to the shop, just to not see someone, I’m not sure who, or something, I don’t know what, just not the course I took from subway to work.

I pulled my own grey dress over my head, zipped it easily, old friend, and handed back all 10 dresses that were never mine.  They were recounted, like prisoners are.

What I need is the dress which balances my sadness at having half my life gone, with being still tender to taps on the shoulder or the heart, a person living more and more all the time.  This is difficult but not impossible to find in a dress.

I took the train way up to the cathedral the next day.  I ought to be preparing for a job interview for a job I didn’t want.  To be fair, I did not want any job.

I walked the long body of the church, and at the front I saw a giraffe of a crane extended all the way to the top of that arch in this biggest cathedral (in the world, by some measures).  Two men, tiny to my eyes, were in the cherry picker up there, examining the stones.

When I walked into the chapel, the gospel was being read, it was the gospel of Herod wanting to find and kill Jesus.

A friend had asked me, of my last job, “Did you think it was you?”

I said, “Oh, of course not,” realizing as I said it that I meant, “Every day.”  Every day I knew it was me, I knew I could have made everything right, if I were smart enough, insistent enough, I could have saved us all including myself.

After the service I went back to the cathedral garden.  The entrance is narrow, appropriately, it is around a corner.  A white pointy-topped pergola lets you in, and two others anchor the other corners.  I took one.  Grape vines with used stems like finished spiders, dried, the places where grapes had been, grape vines like the vines my friend grows in Kansas, like my vines my friends who had to stop drinking no longer touch, grapes like I had drunk an hour before from the chalice.

I sat, protected by the back, the lattice, with the view of the ship-sized cathedral and one flying buttress.  I learned those doing some report in school, I colored a photocopied photo of Notre Dame, I colored the buttresses yellow to highlight them.

I sat and did nothing.  Though I have no paying job, no 8-to-5, I still crave rest, and rest is still, somehow, elusive.

I got up and headed back to the street, and I saw a peacock.  Three peacocks live on the cathedral grounds.  This one was rounding a corner, and I followed him.  He did not have his full tail, nothing dragged.  He had the glittering neck, of turquoise and beryl, of Egyptian lapis lazuli, of Indian silk, and the peacock hat, four feather tiny mohawk, and his back had both a slush of brown and white feathers that seemed cut short, or perhaps were molting, and a small patch of regulation peacock feathers, with the all-knowing emerald eyes.  I leaned over a black chain-link fence and watched him snip bugs from the ground, from the faces and underfaces of leaves.  Such a stunning body, engaged in such underworld work, well, aren’t we all.

I went downtown to buy a copy of Swann’s Way.  I had an impulse to buy it last week, but decided embarking on a big book was dumb.

I went into the Strand, looked at the shelf where they had all the volumes of Proust, except for the first one.  I cursed, I walked away, and I accidentally stood next to the information desk for a second (I would never, voluntarily, ask for help finding anything) and the man at Information said, “Can I help you?” and I said he could, explaining that I was afraid if I didn’t buy the Proust today, I was going to lose my nerve.

“I had a customer in Melbourne, the last place I worked at, and he loved Proust so much, he had read all the different translations.”

“Well,” I said.  “It’s ambitious.  That’s why I haven’t done it yet.”

He showed me to the “Bucket List Books” table.  Stupid.  “That guy said Proust is the kind of thing you can’t get until you are older, you can’t really understand it until you are maybe 40.  He also said he couldn’t appreciate Beethoven until he was 40.”

“Well,” I said, “That sounds perfect.”  He looked about 40 himself, and I was only slightly disappointed he was Australian instead of British, he had a job at the Strand, he was an English major without a proper job, also, well, I don’t have one, either, hooray.

I lined up to pay for the Proust, tapping on it, worrying it was not going to work out between us, it would just be a slog.  I’ve read War and Peace.  That was both a slog and a great, buckle your seatbelt and settle in Russian novel.  It wasn’t just a stunt.

I went further downtown for one more errand, and Proust stayed in my bag.

Before I went home, I walked past Trinity Church, the  same spire Herman Melville saw, the clock he looked at to see the time, I was it was 9:30, the spire that was the tallest point in New York until 1890, and it’s not very tall, the place where people ran into when the tallest spires in New York fell and lost their whole selves to a wind blowing up Manhattan.

I descended to the subway, sat, opened Swann’s Way, and felt quickly that I had a face, lips, fingers, and I knew many things were gone, that I would never see or touch again, my grandparents’ house, my bed there with cocoa-colored sheets with mathy thin red stripes, particularly, I wouldn’t be able to find it.  I could ask someone what the address was, I could rent a car, I could drive there, and that house would be there only in a way that made no difference, with a porch we never sat on, but strangers, now, might, woods that were enormous to me might now be lots, into houses, the clock that chimed had not been on the walls for more than twenty years, and I would lie there, not able to sleep, not wanting to kiss my mother, or have her kiss me, but wanting to sleep and not able to, trying counting down, and counting up, and hearing the clock chime.

That precious and fragile kiss that Mama usually entrusted to me in my bed when I was going to sleep I would have to convey from the dining room to my bedroom and protect during the whole time I undressed, so that its sweetness would not shatter, so that its volatile essence would not disperse and evaporate, and on precisely those evenings when I needed to receive it with more care, I had to take it, I had to snatch it brusquely, publicly, without even having the time and freedom of mind necessary to bring to what I was doing the attention of those individuals controlled by some mania, who do their utmost not to think of anything else while they are shutting a door, so as to be able, when the morbid uncertainty returns to them, to confront it vicariously with the memory of the moment when they did shut the door.

There was no kiss I had, and no kiss which was the kiss I could imagine, or find, and no dress, either, so when I was home I undressed and lay with Proust just at my ribs, he went on, the breeze was then, from the window, just what made me feel what breezes are, and that I had a skin, and having toes and ankles and calves and knees and thighs was also precious, in a night.

Proust excerpt from Lydia Davis’ translation.

Image: detail from Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Poetry and Devotion in Indian Painting” show.

From the Chair

img_2200“This will hurt some, but it would hurt a lot more if I give you a shot in your gums,” the nice bald Russian man said.

I nodded.  I’d had someone push and trim along my gum line with a hideous instrument before, it had gone fine.  Nerve pain in a tooth is the worst, and my tooth is dead, R.I.P., left lateral incisor.  “Uh-huh-huh,” I said, and gave him the thumbs-up.

In Kansas City, I had a dentist who never gave me a filling, he “helped” me out.  The Russian man, here, is not much on following the spittle on the sides of my mouth.  He’s not much on having an assistant.  He’s done almost everything all by his lonesome.  He does cock his head and look at my tooth like it’s a haute couture piece, though, and I like that.

Two days before, I was sitting with a martini at gold-dipped Bemelman’s bar in the Carlyle Hotel, being served by a man in a white jacket.  We sat behind the piano, where the piano’s glossy back arched away from us, as if it were going to dive back in.  Every song you could call a “standard,” the man played, one by one by one, Old New York, he was hidden behind the piano, by its top up, we were shielded by the piano from the doorway to the lobby, the airlock to the world, if you could call Madison Avenue “the world.”

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  I had lots of time, ideas, a million adventures at my fingertips; I am unemployed and have the money I have to look at and watch trickle.  I needed a root canal and a crown; I asked for help with this and it was kindly granted.  Financial help, that is, in the chair, with my mouthful of drills, I have only the alphabet to imagine places I’m glad I’m not trapped:  A, an attic  B, a basement.  C, a cliff dwelling.  D, a death chamber.  I wasn’t great at this game.

It was the next day that the Bemelman’s day ended– I was with a visiting friend and we, as usual, took everything way too far– I stepped into a train car which had four men in it.  Two of them were passed out, and the other two looked about to pass out.  It was two a.m.  I take the subway whenever I want.  I have never had a bad experience.  As with walking barefoot, I’ll have to have a bad experience to stop doing it, and I’m still walking barefoot all kinds of filthy places.

When I got close to home, I bought chocolate chip cookies and water from the newsstand.  Had to walk a ways.  Down our boulevard, which always has cars.  Which at three a.m., has another couple of guys sleeping on park benches.  I tiptoed past them.

The very next day I walked the same street in the daylight.  Instead of a big moon, the trees were presiding.  Instead of being heavy shadow clouds protecting us, the trees were out and explained by day.

I passed a cardboard box of books on someone’s stoop.  There was a children’s book titled, Squids Will Be Squids.  I took it.

I got to my writing space, and I found a book about an aircraft carrier.  I left the squid book and took the aircraft carrier book.  I think it’s okay to take books from there.  What writer wouldn’t want a book borrowed, to be read?

In the ladies’ room at the Carlyle, I washed my hands and put on lotion because it was fancy Carlyle lotion, and it did smell like rich people.

“Do you have a ponytail holder?” this woman asked me.  I was fumbling through my bag looking for my lipstick.  Having had a martini prevented me from finding the lipstick.

“I don’t, I’m sorry.  They should have a vending machine for those.  I always need one, too.”

She had white grey hair, and a long black dress.  “I just need to pull this up,” she said, and went into a stall.

“Uh,” I said.  “Do you need help?”

“No, no,” she said.  She came out.  “I just think this would be better with hair up.”

“Well, it looks great,” I said.  ‘Those feathers!”  Her necklace was made of feathers and white and grey beads, pointing and fringing away from her face, toward her décolletage.  “They look great with your hair!”

I was free from the worst job I ever had, from the avalanche of need of my students, from the terror of losing my job, from alarm clocks, from what was happening.  I was under the thumb of the calendar, my email inbox, from what I want to write but have to force myself to sit down and write, and from what could happen.

Seasonal Weather

IMG_1970When you can run around half-naked, it’s different.  I think.  Anyway it is different in southern California.  Every time I visit, their lack of giving a shit impresses me.  I read Joan Didion, on California: it has to work there, she says, because there is nowhere else.  You are on the edge there.  Which explains better than anything living on the coast, by which I mean New York or LA (like a New Yorker).  When I am impatient because people here walk too slow, there is nowhere else.  There is nowhere else on our planet I can go and walk faster.  This is absolutely it.  Maybe they are taller in the Netherlands, but I’m sure they don’t walk as fast.

It is Labor Day, when our neighborhood is adjacent to the second largest public celebration in New York, the West Indian Day parade.  In the West Indies, you can run around half-naked all the time.

When I was five, we lived on the street the Prairie Village Fourth of July parade marched down.  My aunts and uncles sat in lawn chairs in our front yard and the cooler was full of watermelon, and I got blue and red yarn on my pigtails.  Here we are four short blocks away, a distance that protects us from the clouds of barbecue smoke, the pounding music from speakers on semi trucks, twelve hours of crowd down two miles of sidewalk.

I took my usual walk, half a mile of parade route.  Feathers are gorgeous, gold fringe, every woman once she has breasts has a fully sparkled bikini top and a feather headdress.  I covet the headdresses so big they are floats, the women walk, they have a man beside them to guard them and, I suppose, to take an arm if they become too weary.  They must be so heavy.

Again I muse on how I’ve been a guest in black communities a long time, and how I am always thankful to be tolerated, and I am honored to be welcomed.

A friend tells me he went to last night’s celebration, which is called J’ouvert.  Four people were shot at that part of the party.  He’s fine.  The daytime scene feels wild but safe.  All the booths selling jewelry, flags, t-shirts, tinfoil vats of food, daiquiris in pineapple halves sold out of a grass hut.

I haven’t been to the Caribbean, partly because I feel awkward about visiting anywhere I’d feel like a fat American overlord.  It’s been such an education for me here, knowing older ladies from the islands who want everything at church just exactly so because it’s always been that way, learning from teenagers there isn’t Game Stop in the DR anymore, but that there are horses, beautiful horses, and the beach, always the beach, and you can drive there at any age, Ms Schurman.  I drove when I was eleven.

Jamaica, Haiti, Tobago, the Dominican Republic.  “L’union fait la force,” says one.  Unity makes strength.

There was talk the parade this year could be interrupted or ruined by the hurricane.  We have seen not a drop of rain.

I feel the admiration of someone who has built costumes, and wishes she could build them better, and loves to romp around painted, masked, glittered.  And the complete outsiderness of someone not from anywhere, at an event for people to actually wear the flags of their homes.  Lots of guys wear their flags as capes.  Ladies wear two stitched together as a dress.

There’s no flag I would wear, I guess, there’s no flag I even would fly.  I’m not the least bit patriotic.  Once when I was about to land back in the United States, I was listening to “Rocket Man,” and I thought, oh, how American, I’m home, and then I remembered Elton John is British.  Whatever.  No: another time I felt patriotic, when I was flying home reading Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country, and crying.  But that was feeling love and loyalty to American dissent, to artistic dissent, and the optimism of despair.

Two days we had in Huntington Beach, California, and I wore as little as possible, and was free (except sunblock, sunblock), and there it is still summer, will always be, as we here move into other  kinds of skies, without green leaves, without the salvation of sun.

Levels

ma1985.63.5I was seated right next to someone, although there were plenty of seats at the counter.

“I taught high school for eleven years,” I said, instead of saying, “I am a teacher,” or, “I am a writer.”

In Kansas City, when I say I am a writer, I think people find me eccentric.  In New York, I’m afraid they think I am a famous or successful writer, and then I have to explain my level.

The man I chatted with was an illustrator, graphic design teacher.  We talked easily about cities, schools.  I ate cold squash soup with toasted lentils on top (very fancy food for me) and had a glass of wine because I always have a glass of wine at MoMA, even when I am unemployed.

The guy talked about having met the wife of one of the artists who was currently showing at the museum.  I told him about meeting someone who knew Rothko, last time I chatted up a stranger at the cafe.

“Rothko is buried right down the street from my house,” he said.

I used to not feel much about Rothko until my ex liked Rothko, and I started paying more attention, and then I saw his paintings in their natural habitat in DC and in London, and I understood they were trying to do something to you.  Reading Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art helped, too.  Colors and how they could, would, do, should affect people.

We paid our bills.

“Let’s just look at one thing together,” the guy said.

“Okay, sure,” I said.

We went around the corner.  We looked up at the title and explanation for the display.  I don’t like to read those, though, so I didn’t.  We went on inside.

“What do you think?” he said.

The room was full of pieces of cardboard you had to walk around, barriers.

“It’s fun,” I said.  “It’s like a maze, sort of.”

On the walls were photos of windows and hands.  “I don’t think the pictures go with the maze, though, the maze is fun, and the pictures are so formal.”

“I don’t feel like I get this high-concept stuff sometimes,” the guy said, which is another way of saying what people often say in art museums: “What the hell is this supposed to be?”

“A lot of modern art is funny,” I said.  “I hate that people don’t smile or laugh more when they look at art.  A lot of it is funny.”

I was remembering a bit from the Met Breuer show, a film that says, “A FILM BY BLAH BLAH WHOEVER” and then the radar-screen swoop countdown: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1… 1/2, 1/4,” it goes on to smaller fractions, I laughed, and I loved watching successive people laugh when the 1/2 showed up.

And it reminded me of all the years I counted down to start class.  I would do the same thing.  1/16.  1/32.

The truth is, I didn’t get to be a real teacher out here, at neither school did I have the discipline support or academic support to do the job the way I know it should be done.  If New York City schools weren’t a monopoly, if I knew more people, if I were better at navigating the thorny brush of the enormous system, I would have left earlier.

Another truth is: knowing I won’t teach this year is freeing, confusing, and scary.  I’m not sure who I am if I’m not a teacher.  My adult life started when I started teaching.  That made me an adult more than anything else I’ve ever done.  It made me feel useful.

“I just don’t get the levels,” the guy said.  “I mean, like being an illustrator, there’s this huge jump to be considered someone who does work that gets in a gallery, and there’s this other huge jump to get in a place like this, and I don’t get it.”

“Oh, I don’t get it, either,” I said.  Who does?  Some artists are praised and paid for their work early and often, some labor along with little stuff as I do, some hit big and then become unfashionable, some make stuff and keep it in a drawer.  All that is hard because it took a lot to make things in the first place, let alone deal with everyone else’s reaction, or lack of reaction.

I wish all of the agents I’ve ever pitched to had all fought to fight for my work, and I wish I had work as a teacher that was comfortable and exciting for me.  But that isn’t about levels, it’s about support and opportunity.

I wish someone thought I was a genius, so I could be lonely like I’m above it all instead of normal lonely.  That must be levels.

“Well.  Nice to meet you.  Enjoy the museum.”

“You, too,” I said.

Image: No. 13, Mark Rothko, Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Aside: the Met owns a bunch of Rothkos they don’t even display.  Including that one.

The show we saw at MoMA, which was much more interesting after I bothered to read the introductory text.

 

Small Animals

13625378_10208590462653305_9197893018731847063_nI thought Sardi’s was a tourist trap.  And I thought I could not afford it.  My way of going to see Broadway shows has always been to eat a slice of pizza beforehand, because after paying for a ticket that is all that seems prudent.

I happened to be meeting a friend in Times Square, though, it is halfway between us, and I thought of Sardi’s.  It was lunch, maybe we could swing it for lunch.

The waiters had jackets, the walls were the caricatures, and were the red I think a restaurant should be.  All restaurants should have red walls.  Except Greek restaurants, which should have white ones, and Mexican restaurants, which should be yellow.  The ceiling had acoustic tile, which reminded me this was a real place.

Amazing places are also real, hard to absorb, but true.  The pyramids in Egypt are, I guess, a real place.  I know the Louvre is real.  It was hard for me to believe it, though, when I was there.

We ate and had a good chat.  It was a late lunch, and there were only three tables of us left, the place had cleared out from the Wednesday matinee crowd.

“He’s in the bar area,” our waitress said to the couple next to us.

“Excuse me, who were you asking about?” my friend asked, thank God, because I was trying to figure out how to get them talking.

“Her brother, Arthur Miller,” the man said.

Then I had a heart attack and couldn’t think what to say.

For six years, I taught The Crucible.  “Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer,” I thought, rather than “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another!” which would have been cool.

Every time I taught it, with my five sections of juniors– so that is thirty times I read it– I would stop there and say, “Why does he say that?  Does beer not freeze?”

The kids were in chemistry that same year, and usually there would be one kid who would explain, “Alcohol doesn’t freeze.”  It was a test to see who knew about chemistry, or about liquor, as a junior in high school.  “You can put a bottle of vodka in the freezer,” someone might say, and I would think, Well, that tells me something about you.

I did not know about the freezing point of alcohol when I was a junior in high school because I was a nerd.

I wanted desperately for Arthur Miller’s sister to begin telling us her life story and I would have sat rapt the entire time, but I couldn’t think what to ask because I was stuck on, Arthur Miller was a real person, with a sister, and Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer.

For the record, I don’t think anyone would say my justice would freeze beer.  I would say, the quality of mercy is not strained, it drops as the gentle rain from heaven, another dramatic quote that sticks with me, this one from driving past the words engraved in the sign at the public hospital next to where I worked.

Arthur Miller was a real person, not a saint, wait, saints were real people, too.  Once.

Arthur Miller’s sister is not her name.  What was her favorite play?  I managed to ask.  She is an actress.  “Between jobs,” I said; she chuckled.

Death of A Salesman,” she said.

Well, I would have to read that again.  It had been a long time.

My imagined Broadway in New York is the ’40s and ’50s, those shows, their clothes, good wool and high heels and clothes that gave women shape instead of them being expected to provide it, and small drinks, little wine glasses, little martini glasses, automats.  Everything drier and sleeker and smaller.

This isn’t to say I don’t love being here now, a woman who isn’t married and doesn’t have to be, with current Times Square, much more money, much more diverse, less provincial, less formal.  I love the people dressed in cartoon character costumes, now confined to blue-painted patches of the sidewalk so they don’t get in the way of we civilians.  I love the embarrassing capitalist mess of it.

Joan Copeland is her name, and she was one of the first members of the Actors Studio, along with, you know, Elia Kazan.

I’m glad I didn’t know this while chatting with her, I would have lost my shit even more.

I was conscious of not asking her about her brother, being a sibling to someone so famous must be kind of a drag.  “What was your favorite part?” we asked.

She talked about playing parts in soap operas.  Which reminded me of my favorite old man I ever met in New York, a retired violinist for the Met.  I met him at MoMA, and he told me about hanging out with Rothko (who was also a real person, I know), and when I asked him what his favorite opera was, he said, “The shortest ones.”  Work is work.  And I wasn’t sure how clear her thoughts or memories were, she’s of an age to have so many thoughts and memories they could get crowded and jumbled.

“Has Sardi’s changed?” we asked.

“Oh, no,” she said.  “I used to have that corner table every night,” she said.  “They saved it for me.”

“Wow,” I said.  I could also say that.

“When my brother was blacklisted, you couldn’t go eat in the restaurants if you were thought to be a liberal, you know, they said communist then, but a liberal, really.  Vincent not only let Arthur eat here, he would be out in the street and yell down to him, ‘Welcome, come on in.'”

I asked if I could take my picture with her, would she mind, she said no.  I sat next to her and she asked if she needed lipstick.  I said yes.  She pulled out her beautiful black satin clutch, fooled around in it for the lipstick and applied it to her bottom lip perfectly, looking into her palm as if it had a mirror in it but it did not.  Her fingernails were red, her blouse was just the right shape for her figure, her earrings dangled just below the length of her hair.

Someone mentioned men going bald, and she started singing, “A bald man…. don’t kiss a man/whose name you don’t know….  What song is that?”

We didn’t know.

“I usually think it’s a good idea,” I said, “but not always.”

She was in thirteen shows on Broadway, lots of soaps, and had bit parts on television and in movies.  She was an understudy for Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn.  She knew Marilyn Monroe from the Actors Studio, but did not know Monroe was dating her brother.  (“I’m not much up on gossip,” she reportedly said.)

I walked down subway stairs in love with her, “I am in love with her,” I thought, which made me start singing, in my head, “I’m in love/ I’m in love/I’m in love/I’m in love….”  That is maybe my favorite show.

I would rather, actually, meet Joan Copeland than Arthur Miller.  Most of us artists are small animals, the squirrels and sparrows of the art world, not lions like Arthur Miller.  We’re all related, though, all in that family, and it was lovely to meet a grandmother.

What It Cost

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My favorite thing at the Brooklyn Historical Society was the tile floor.  The same people who put in the floor worked on the Capitol.  The building also has huge terra cotta busts on the outside, Columbus, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin.  The Brooklyn Historical Society is, itself, a National Historic Landmark.  For whatever sense that makes.

The Brooklyn Historical Society is not like the grateful and hopeful ticket sellers, and like some Dickensian character, I believe, after research, Mr. Wilkins “something will turn up” Micawber, at the Teddy Roosevelt house or the Merchant House.  The Brooklyn Historical Society politely hardly noticed me.  Ten dollars.

They are passing the time.

The display on abolitionism in Kings County (the fictionalized name of the county I grew up in, in the only novel I’ve ever read to mention the county I grew up in, and the actual name of Brooklyn’s county) happily included some happy stories of slaves or free blacks who got names, were brave, made money, founded schools, escaped, built things.

The bank on the corner where I get the subway was the Kings County Bank when they built it.  Kings County Bank is carved into the top of the building.  Above the doorway, another carving: A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.  I see this from time to time when I am going home, and first I think that I have never saved any money, and fault myself, and then I think, well, that’s true of other journeys, too, and I’ve been on many journeys.

There were two black communities in Brooklyn, one in Williamsburg, one near the Brooklyn Bridge.  The oldest black school and black church were originally near there.  Frederick Douglass and and Harriet Tubman spoke at the first black church.  Yes, that Frederick Douglass and that Harriet Tubman.  The church still exists, as an institution.  It is now located in Bed-Stuy.

The worst part of the history they covered (all plenty bad) was the draft riots.  White New Yorkers attacking their black neighbors like they just realized they were Hutus living with Tutsis, powerless Hutus, maybe that’s a wrong or offensive simile.  Stabbing people and throwing their bodies in the river, all I can think of is the Rwandan genocide, the only thing I remember reading about that was as sudden and so vicious and unbelievable.  The good old days, when race riots were started by white people.

Poor white people burned down an orphanage.  The kids were okay.  If that makes you feel any better.

The white people are mad because black people can’t be drafted, and poor white people will have to go to war to fight to save the union they don’t get much from.  Black people can’t be drafted because they are not people.

Perhaps our worst race riot.  It depends on how you measure.

They had a small display about the development of sewers in New York, revealing to me that for a time, Coney Island was too smelly with sewage to let anyone stroll or lounge or bathe there.  The New York City sewers, like many, combine storm water and sewage, and this has its plusses and minuses.  I have seen this in Kansas City, where backed up sewers from too much storm water mean rubber gloves and filling bins of bleach water for the Christmas tree ornaments.

I remember visiting New York City as a child and being told, “This is some of the best tap water in the country,” and thinking that someone had told me that of Kansas City’s water, too.  Was the water in every town so talked-up?  I knew only that the water from my great-grandparents’ well tasted like it had turned.

They have a library at the Historical Society, the prettiest I have ever seen, elegant but still cozy.  It was closed for the month of August, to horde its prettiness.  Locked glass doors.

They have photos taken on a tour of Brooklyn led by Truman Capote.  Brooklyn in 1958, looking much more like current Brooklyn than many other cities resemble themselves.  Black and white kids in parochial school uniforms goofing off together on the street.  Storefronts with handprinted signs, just the same.  Restaurants looking remarkably like restaurants now except the people are more dressed up.  This photographer took the shots to illustrate “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”  Have I dressed up as Holly Golightly for Halloween before?  Of course I have.  Not letting being blonde stop me from anything brunette people can do.

I had the feeling that so much money, for so long, had gone into the institution, that it existed largely to give Brooklynites something honorable to give their money, and to maintain its own elegance, which is not the worst thing, dour Americans!

There were current photos, too, taken of people who had gotten food from food banks.  I was, coincidentally, starving.  I was starving because it is my usual practice to eat a minor breakfast, lie about, get inspired to go out, and then discover it is 4 pm, and my mouth is watering and my hands are shaking.  It was embarrassing to see the photos that way, particularly the one of a table someone had set with the food she had gotten, and I thought, I wouldn’t eat any of that food, God, I am a brat.

A child asleep on a couch because he’s walked four miles, round trip, to two different food banks in Queens, to get the groceries for the week.  The hungry and the closed glass doors to the prettiest library, there on the second and third floors, with the beautiful tile floors.

As a counterweight to the busts of the magnificent dead white men on the outside, there is a bust of a girl whose freedom was purchased with donations from Henry Ward Beecher’s congregation.  He would turn his sermon into an auction.  Sally Maria Diggs cost $900.

The exhibit of photos on hunger, by Joey O’laughlin, suggests you contribute to (among other worthy charities) the Food Bank for New York City.