Sixty years. Affairs like this don't end after sixty years. These love affairs are usually marriages that end with death, regardless of what the survivor does after the death of the beloved. This is different. Sixty years without even a marriage. More passionate for the whole duration than I can explain to you. More intense; more fantasies; more realities; nitty gritty and sublime in one dose, in the same block, in the same hour. Could anyone without this same passion ever understand?
But suddenly, unexpectedly it ended. Like when your fiance drops dead on a train platform two weeks before your wedding. What is the matter with the left side of your body? There is no skin and no bones there. The organs are exposed. Raw ragged scraps of flesh creep out from your sleeves and hems. Something is missing. Your better half? No, your other half. The loss sends you into the quiver of the unknown. You know you have left one shore but who knows how long it will take you to land on the other side? Under your leaping legs is an abyss too profound, too black, and too silent to contemplate let alone try and look at head on. You are floating with no chance of grounding yourself or landing on hard turf. But it is the gaping wound that catches your attention – the gaping bloodless wound. The place where you were attached to your lover. It is severed now forever. You severed it yourself.
You'll never go back to what it was before. While you float above the abyss the only thing you are sure of is that you will never go back. All those years, decades, thoughts, feelings, wondering why you never married again, while you were never co-joined with a true mate – suddenly you know why. Because this was your lover – almost your entire life and now, for reasons you don't even know, it's over and you only have the wound and the float.
The ten-year old girl is tall enough to peer out of the taxi window for two whole hours almost without blinking. She looks at buildings, sidewalks, dozens maybe hundreds of people as they cross the intersections. She is so young that she doesn't have to assemble it into a coherent picture. She already knows that this place is so diverse no one has to attempt a melding or an integration. It's enough for everyone to exist simultaneously – all at once, doing whatever they do. It's not like the place where she comes from full of people, black people and white people, drawn into separate camps with clear demarcation lines. Here everyone is in the streets. And at night the lights are unbelievable.
This is her first trip to New York. Her father has commandeered a taxi to drive them all over Manhattan in two or three hours. Her decision, her seduction, is complete in the first twenty minutes. She wants to be here and to stay here. Finally, sixty years later, she sees that it all began in this first taxi ride. She is ready to leave her home town and come here to live, but she is only ten years old.
In the intervening years she visits New York often with her mother who loves to take a taxi from Penn Station to the docks in the West Fifites. She bribes a sailor on duty at the gangplank and they go aboard a newly arrived trans-atlantic ocean liner. Sometimes they have trouble getting off, especially when they visit an arriving ship (and they have no papers) instead of a departing ship. Then her mother has to find the exact same sailor who let them on board to smuggle them off.
Sometimes her mother goes right up to the box office of a theater and asks for two tickets from Will Call. "I'm sorry Madam; we have nothing in your name." That's impossible says her mother. "Moss Hart left tickets for me. He phoned me this morning before I took the train from Philadelphia." And pretty soon the young daughter and her mother are seated inside the theater with the legitimate audience.
When she is old enough she simply takes the train from Philadelphia to New York and goes by herself to a matinee and manages to return home in time for dinner. "What did you do today," her parents inquire. "Oh I went shopping downtown," she says, meaning center city Philadelphia, a twenty minute commuter train ride away. And she thinks about Julie Harris whom she had just seen in Anouilh's The Lark, the story of Joan of Arc, on Broadway.
She wants to go to art school but there are five good ones in Philadelphia and none in New York with dormitories. Instead she attends college up on Morningside Heights. She realizes at once that she is the token "normal girl" in her class; her mother didn't commit suicide; she herself hasn't been in a psychiatric facility; she didn't give up a child for adoption. She probably has nothing in common with the other girls in the dorm. She takes classes at the Art Students League at night. She works at the Metropolitan Museum weekends where hordes of people, mostly New Yorkers, pour into the massive lobby where she is a salesgirl behind the gift counter. After a few months she has learned that there is no connection between their often spectacular appearance, their personalities, and their character.
Metropolitan Museum of Art Photo Wally Gobetz
Riding from Morningside Heights, across 110th Street and down Fifth Avenue to the Met, she hears the old white Russian women from Washington Heights speaking their beautiful pre-revolutionary Russian so she studies the language seven times a week for three years at Columbia.
Her parents, who come to New York about once a month to see her and her brother, who lives on the lower East Side, berate her for majoring in useless anthropology. But anthropology has taught her that there are so many ways to do things, not just the ways Americans did things in the forties and fifties, the ways her parents told her were correct. And her specialty – Near Eastern Archaeology – drives her parents crazy. Her mother forgets that she has always asked the daughter "What happened in Alexandria. Who were the Hittites? Were Hammurabi's laws the same as the Old Testament?" How was she supposed to answer those questions when she was in junior and senior high school? But the very questions, and the few books her mother had like one called Cairo to Damascus by John Roy Carlson (who's he anyway?) obviously had created strange pathways in her brain and now she was studying those ancient civilizations. But she told her parents not to worry; she would be able to teach Russian when she got out of college.
To their relentless threats to remove her from college in New York and send her to the University of Pennsylvania to marry a nice Jewish boy, she finally responded: "If you don't send me back, I'll get a job and an apartment and stay in New York. This is where I want to be." The ten year old's decision was taking form in the real world.
Every winter her parents went to a business convention at the end of January. Her senior semester in college – the one where she signed out of the dorms for a week at a time and stayed with her physics professor boyfriend in a brick house facing Washington Square – ended around January 20th. When she had finished her classes, her parents were off to New Orleans. By the time they returned and called to come and fetch her back to Pennsylvania at last, she could tell them that she already had a job and an apartment and had, in fact, moved in while they were on Bourbon Street.
This was the beginning of 1961. She had already lived a century worth of adventures in New York but felt as if she were just getting started. Later in life she would find it impossible to describe the sixties in New York. She thought of the Summer of Love, Woodstock, Paris – nothing compared with walking out your front door, down a few blocks to Union Square and on to Washington Square – all in the morning, while evenings were spent at artists bars full of Swedish film directors and actors, Andy Warhol, Nureyev - among the celebraties just hanging around. But it was the everyday artists performing at Judson Church, releasing rats under white paper on (Nam June Paik) Prince Street and pouring blood out of windows, playing concerts at the New School where the orchestra keep playing until all the audience, one by one, realized the musicians would keep playing until the hall was empty. Nothing compared with the Times Square anti-war demonstration in 1964 when the police used medieval maces to beat up the crowd or the thirty thousand people marching in 1965 but reported as 3000 the next day in the Sunday New York Times. And why leave when Janis Joplin and Ornette Coleman and Coltrane and even Timothy Leary were all easily seen down the street at the Fillmore East and every great and not-so-great Beat poet read at St. Mark's Church.
And why hasn't anyone erected a memorial to George and Tillie Mehawich, Ukrainian American farmers who moved from East Sixth Street to Ringoes New Jersey? Every Thursday night they trucked into Manhattan with their organic chickens and vegetables; slept in the little room in back of their bedroom size storefront on East Sixth Street off the Bowery, and opened shop Friday morning. They sold their wares all day Friday and Saturday, then packed up, washed down the store and in later years came to Sherry and Peter's place with a chicken and a bottle of whiskey to finish off the weekend before they drove back to Ringoes. This was in the sixties … organic organic organic.
Or how about the roast suckling pig Sherry collected one day at Ottomanelli's on Bleeker Street. She brought it home to her rent controlled apartment on East 17th Street and then had no place to put it. So she put the pig in the Victorian high chair and put her baby daughter's hat on it with it's back to the front door. When Peter came home, he leaned over to kiss the baby but found the snout instead. Later they decided to put it on the fire escape overnight till they could cook it. But Sherry went to bed first and took the pig and put it in the bed. Peter climbed in ready for action and found the pig instead. Oh if only she were into metaphors for life.
Forty five years later my grandsons, first cousins, meet in a cafe on Bleeker Street near Ottomanelli's.
The next night they had a huge party at the loft of Peter's brother on Lafayette Street – again in the sixties before anyone but artists lived in industrial lofts downtown. After the pig was pretty well consumed, the iconic image remained of three beautiful Swedish girls (Sherry thought they were the essential ingredient to a good party) holding just the head of the pig and slowly extracting whatever meats (as in brains) it had to offer.
Although she moved from New York to Maine around 1973, her heart and passion for New York never abated. When she moved to California in 1991 her heart and passion for New York never abated. Until now – one cold winter's visit with her beautiful children and all the beautiful lights of Christmas, and then it was all over. Suddenly the attachment gone, irretrievable like a lover whose words have no more interest to you.
My son and his family, Christmas in Rockefeller Center, 2008