I am in a small black carriage, moving fast. The roof is in place. The gray sidewalk is running away beneath the wheels, as it always runs when you bend over to see it. Ahead of us on a bench is a man in a black coat and black hat. As we come along, moving fast, the sidewalk running and bumping, he slowly raises his hand and waves. Everything about him is slow. He is sitting in front of a gate. It is the gate to the Prospect Park Zoo. He is my great grandfather. Later my mother says I am too young to remember him sitting there.
I am sitting on the dark green linoleum of the kitchen floor, under the sink. Our kitchen window is open and directly across the alley, our neighbor’s kitchen window is open. In my kitchen, my mother and grandmother are cooking. Long orange curls of carrot skin drop from their hands into the garbage pail. Across the alley, our neighbor and her mother are also cooking. Their radio is playing, tuned in to the station that plays “Stella Dallas.” When my grandmother notices this, she turns our radio off. Why waste electricity playing ours when we can hear theirs perfectly well? A new and unfamiliar voice comes over the radio. Everyone stops what they are doing. My grandmother’s arm is arrested in midair, a wooden spoon almost to her mouth. My mother has turned her head slightly and is staring across the alley at the other kitchen. In that kitchen, too, the women have stopped moving and are staring at us. Someone says, “He’s dead.” Everyone begins to cry. Much later, when they notice me again, I ask them who is dead. They say Roosevelt is dead. Then they begin crying again. I try to see what difference this makes to me but fail.
Was it summer or winter? I don’t remember. The windows were open. But during the day, there was so much cooking on the four burners that the kitchen was perpetually hot and so the windows were open in winter and summer.
If you stand on the corner of our block on Bedford Avenue where it meets Avenue U, and look down, then all the identical houses form a wall of houses that stretch from one end to the other, but the houses are only connected two by two. A narrow alley separates each pair of houses from the next. The houses are identical but they do not look the same. Some have painted their steps and front doors bright red, others blue. The second stories of all the houses have porches, divided from one another by a low brick wall. Some porches are green with potted trees. Others are bright with porch swings, some of which sport brightly striped awnings. Small children hang over the edges of these porches and are pulled back by white-haired women. In many houses, the apartments are divided this way: the grandparents on the first floor, the child and its family on the second floor. These are called mother-daughter houses. Families have not yet heard of separating.
There is a long narrow hall leading down from the second floor apartment to the narrow front door. No one uses these steps. People come and go on the back steps. They stop on the landing and listen to conversations taking place inside the apartment below them. When the mail comes, someone goes down the long front steps and picks up the mail, the long envelopes that lie in the pool of darkness like a dead bird. This is my job. I ask my mother why I don’t get more mail. She says that to get letters you have to write them. It occurs to me that writing is something worth doing. I write letters to my grandmother, who lives in our front room, get stamps from my grandfather, and carefully write our address on the envelopes. When I can find someone to cross me to the other side of the street, I mail them in the shiny blue box.
I often catch my grandmother putting her letters to me on the floor at the bottom of the steps. She doesn’t want to waste money on stamps. After a while I write to my grandfather. Then I begin to get letters of my own.
Everyone comes to our house for Thanksgiving. The big, shiny mahogany table is opened for the adults, the card tables for the children. When anyone is late, his itinerary becomes the subject of discussion. He is taking the IRT or the BMT and walking the rest of the way to the house. He is taking a bus or a trolley and walking the rest of the way. The entire geography of Manhattan and the suburbs spreads out in the air, everyone converging on our house. Of course everyone gets there. No one thinks of crossing a state boundary, of spending more than a few days upstate. Except, perhaps, my uncle, who will one day end up in Sing Sing, at which point he vanishes from conversation we can hear, and is discussed by adults, and then only in whispers.
One Thanksgiving, a strange woman appears with my uncle. She wears bright red lipstick and has black, black hair. She does not send me back to the children’s table when I sit in a temporarily empty chair next to her. Later on, I forget her name. Everyone swears there was no such person.
When I am 19, again at the table, I look up and say, “Her name was Stella.” My mother, grandmother and aunts look at one another but avoid looking at me. “I remember now,” I say.
My aunt says they didn’t mention Stella because she wasn’t Jewish. My cousin says they didn’t mention Stella because she was part of the scheme to sell fraudulent bonds that landed my uncle in Sing Sing. My father says he once went to visit my uncle there and it was a terrible thing. My grandmother says the last time she saw her brother, my uncle, he began singing,’ I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air, they rise so high, almost touch the sky, then with a quiver, they shiver and die,” and he put his head down on his desk and began to cry. A few days later the cleaning woman found him dead in his chair. Of course by now she is crying, too. I understand that I am not always beloved for my memory.
The alleys are wonderful. They quickly fill with snow. In the winter of l947 there was a blizzard. The drifts came up to the top of the first floor windows. We burrowed under the drifts knowing we were invisible. I heard my mother’s voice shouting for us, quivering with terror. My mother thought we were kidnapped or dead. I liked that. I thought it was very sophisticated.
In the small backyard grows a pussy willow tree. It takes up most of the window, but in winter you can see through it to the houses behind us. In spring it changes its nature. It flowers and the pussy willows appear. Then the branches change one last time and are covered with fuzzy green things. I am sure they are green bees. No one can persuade me to open my window. At night I hear them buzzing. When the moon catches itself in the tree’s branches, I become frantic and hide under the blanket. Hot weather and insects: I begin to dislike them both.
I am calling for my friend Tina exactly as she calls for me. None of us ever ring the doorbells. Someone might have a cold. Someone might be working at night. If we wake someone who is sleeping, then our friend’s mother will shout at us. Instead we stand in the alley and shout our friends name. The mother opens the window and asks, You want Tina? and when I say yes, Tina comes to the window and leans out. I ask if she can come out to play. She says yes or no, usually yes. At times she tells me to come in. In our neighborhood, this is an eternal sound: children in alleys, looking up at blank windows, shouting for their friends. No one is yet used to telephones. Everyone views the telephone receiver as a machine capable of sucking the family income into it. I learn to dial my grandparents’ early: Their number is Dewey 2-0123. The address of my father’s loft is 123 Fifth Avenue. I assume we have such low numbers, the first ones I learn, because we got to the city so early. I never tell anyone this theory and so no one contradicts me.
My mother sits in the kitchen with her friend Hilda, who is Puerto Rican. They speak Spanish or what they call Spanish. From my room down the hall, I imitate them. All night long I make noises that sound, to me, exactly like the noises they make.
Finally my mother receives her master’s degree. Much later, in a new house, I find her master’s thesis in a white cardboard box, at the bottom of a closet in the attic. Hanging above it is her wedding dress, its hem barely brushing the lid of the box. I am older now and when I see the dress brushing the sealed box, I shake my head and say, This will never happen to me.
When my father is a child, he helps my grandfather. Once there is a strike of finishers. My grandfather hires many Italian women to finish his suits. In the morning, he and my father carry the garments up five flights of tenement buildings and in the evening, they climb back up and carry them down again. That night, he and my grandfather walk from the cottage my grandfather rents in Rockaway to take a swim. “I’m tired,” says my father.
“You’re tired?” says my grandfather. “What did you do?” “What did I do?” says my father, who turns on his heel and walks away. He never works for his father again.
I arrive, followed by my brother, both of us followed by the Depression. My father, who has his law degree, not from Harvard, to which he was accepted, but from C.C.N.Y., decides to give up his practice and go into the clothing business. His father pleads with him: He will break his mother’s heart. His mother pleads with him: He will break his father’s heart. He says he will break his own heart if he cannot support his wife and children. He buys a loft, a cutting table, and begins making suits. When I complain about my maps or reports, he says, Inability is no excuse. He made up his entire law school thesis, he tells me. He sat around and listened to the men talk in his father’s place and he wrote down what he heard there. For this thesis—on the unions and the men’s clothing business—he graduates with honors. A few months later, he sneaks into the school library and steals the only copies of his thesis. He doesn’t want to be found out. It occurs to me that his sayings have become mine, that his methods are also mine.
After my grandfather is shot, my grandmother comes to live with us. According to her, nothing my father does is good enough for us. For instance we have a very shabby car with at least three rust spots. Every day she stops and points out a car to us: This is the kind of car my daughter should have, she tells my father. Naturally we do not see what is wrong with our car, which always starts and always keeps going until we arrive, usually at my father’s mother’s house.
One morning we are about to leave for the bungalow colony and our annual summer vacation. When we come downstairs, my grandmother points to a shiny red Hudson and says, This is the kind of car my daughter should have.
Then get in, my father says.
I wish I could get in, says my grandmother.
Here, says my father. I’ll open the door for you.
Irving! says my mother. Don’t touch that car!
My father opens the door. Get in, he tells my grandmother.
Well, he says, if you won’t get in, I’ll try it out. He opens the door and sits down in the front seat, behind the wheel.
The idiot wants to get himself arrested for nothing, my grandmother says.
Edith, says my father. Get in.
My mother looks up and down the street, opens the back door and gets in. That’s enough, Irving, she says.
Tell the children to get in, my father says. Get in! he shouts at us. We climb in over my mother.
My father has his hand over the car horn. Don’t touch that! says my grandmother. You’ll bring a policeman running!
My father honks the horn. In the back seat, we are terrified.
My father takes out a key and starts the car. What are you doing? my grandmother and mother scream at once.
My father pulls away from the curb. You said this is the kind of car your daughter should have, he says. Now she has it.
A stolen car, says my grandmother.
It’s not stolen, says my mother. Is it, Irving?
No, it’s not stolen, he says. What’s left to complain about now? he asks my grandmother.
That a daughter of mine should have to live in a rented house! she says.
My grandmother lives with us until, according to my father, she comes after him with a knife. And why does she come after him with a knife? Naturally because of me. I misbehave all day long and then when he comes home my mother reports on my doings and he is expected to spank me. One evening, advancing upon me, my grandmother—armed with a kitchen knife—advanced upon him. Don’t touch the child, she says.
I won’t live with a woman who comes after me with a knife, my father says. After that, my grandmother lives in a small apartment on Cortelyou Road. I become a constant visitor. I am everyone’s audience, if not confidante. No one seems to think I understand what I’m told.
My grandmother left my grandfather because he was jealous and threatened her with a knife to get the truth out of her. Also he followed her everywhere. She would turn around on the street and find him trying to hide himself behind a lamp post. I thought: How exciting life is! The adults who appear so dull do all these things! When my grandmother and I took the train to the movies, I would stare up and down the long gray platform, looking for my grandfather, hiding behind one of the posts. I never see him. I am insulted: Am I not worth following? Don’t tell your grandfather what I said, my grandmother tells me.
Don’t tell your grandmother I let you eat a bacon sandwich, says my grandfather. I am stuffed with things I can’t tell anyone else. But when we come home, my grandmother inhales my coat collar and says, I know what you’ve been eating. Then shouts come from the living room. But the next week, we do the same thing.
At least twice a year we are taken into Manhattan to shop: winter coats, spring coats. Then we go to Macy’s and walk through the bridge connecting the two sections of the store. We come back on the train. The train seats are covered in woven, lacquered rattan and leave their criss-crossed pattern on our knees. When we are back in Brooklyn, I sit up, looking for the fountain that plays all year long in back of one of the tall apartment buildings. It is the most glamorous thing I have ever seen. Except, perhaps, for my aunt’s elevator, whose floor numbers turn bright red when the elevator reaches them. I walk to her house, ride up and down in her elevator, and eat junket, a slippery pudding that appears to me an elegant food. Then I walk home. I walk to the library for my books and when I come home the marshy, empty fields are to my left. Occasionally a duck rises up out of them and flies in front of the setting sun in front of the cat tails.
There is nothing to fear from the city. But my grandmother says: Never go into a public bathroom. There is a bad man with scissors who hides in there and cuts off the braids of little girls.
Every day my father goes to The Place. The Place is a clothing loft on Fifth Avenue. 1-2-3 Fifth Avenue. At home, my favorite story is “Bluebeard.” I learn to read it when no one else will read it to me: They say they are sick of it. The loft reminds me of Bluebeard’s house: thousands and thousands of suits, black, gray, brown, blue, bodies without heads or hands or feet hanging in the air, terribly sad places, these lofts, the same thing again and again, so that even a minute seems like a month, a year, a lifetime. Lofts are places to get out of.
But in the back is the scrap barrel, filled with scraps of suit-lining, silk, brilliant colors, red, orange, patterned blues, all shining, odd-shaped, some suited to dolls’ clothes. I find a bag and pack it up with scraps.
We are familiar with many lofts, not just this one. If we need skirts, we are taken to my uncle s Place, and fitted out with whatever he has available. Then a tailor stands us on a chair and marks the clothing with waxy soap. This is how we get our jackets, many of our coats, our hats, even our party dresses. For some time it seems that no one s Place makes shoes, but one winter, my father comes home with four pairs of boots and four pairs of galoshes. They fit us perfectly and he is well-pleased with himself.
When I am older, and once more in The Place, I notice rows and rows of navy blue suit jackets, their bright gold buttons marked with large, noticeable R’s. My father’s store is named Remley Clothes. I think the buttons are advertising the store. What are all these R’s doing here? I ask my father. Oscar de la Renta wants it that way, he says.
Because of my father’s Place and the many other Places we visit, I begin to acquire a peculiar view of Manhattan. While we press our heads to the cold plate glass windows, watching the snow or the rain fall upon the hurrying black and gray people on the sidewalk below, the people we know manufacture beautiful clothing for the exquisite people we see when we go to look at the Christmas windows. Every now and then, I see a man dressed in a suit whose jacket buttons are conspicuously marked with R’s. I know where the jacket comes from. I know who makes it.
My father, dressed in his baggy clothes, gives the order to the cutter: how many suits, how many jackets. The tailor, who is 5 feet 1 inch tall, finishes the garments. This is where glamour comes from: from my father’s Place. He is entirely unimpressed with it. So am I. Anything a family member can create is homely, not glamorous. From all this, a vision of the city grows up: all over, in lofts, unglam-orous creatures create costumes for people who would look glamorous. What is the difference between them? I am too young to understand money. The difference must be in what role someone wants to play. At any moment someone can change his mind. The underside of glamour is forever the man in the baggy suit, the tailor, or finisher, who is almost a dwarf. Sometimes the glamorous people come to The Place and leave with a suit in a garment bag. It is as if they have lost their way. It is as if they are giving away a secret by coming to this world, the wrong side of the fabric, where all the threads show, the tangly, chaotic wrong side of the tapestry.
You have to get dressed up, my mother says.
What is she saying, really? Tomorrow you will be a changeling. When the sun goes down, you can change back. Why are these metamorphoses necessary? In the city they are.
My grandfather owns a pharmacy, which means that he has a telephone before anyone else, and people who come into his store call him Doctor Levine. He also has a soda fountain so that when I come to the store in my snowsuit, I am set on a stool and given an ice cream soda. I prefer eggnogs with coffee ice cream although I am tempted by the pink concoctions in tall cups ordered by the girls from the high school. The bottles behind the counter are lined with jars and inside are pills and liquids of all colors. Behind the counter, my grandfather is grinding something with his brass mortar and pestle. A woman farther down the counter asks for a cup of coffee and gives it to her daughter to drink: to warm her up after the ice cream soda. My grandfather frowns.
I regard my grandfather as mine, the way a child regards his dog as his personal possession. He is only 5 feet 2 inches tall.
Some time before I was born, a man came into his store. He had a gun and asked my grandfather for opium. My grandfather saw the man intended to shoot him and took his own gun from the cash register and shot the man instead. In due course, the man died. My mother kept the newspaper accounts of this accident and one day I found them. The assailant was a tall man, over 6 feet tall.
One day the man’s sister came to my grandfather’s pharmacy and asked if Mr. Levine was there. He said he was. She said she was the dead man’s sister and that he should not feel bad because sooner or later someone was going to shoot her brother and she was glad it was sooner. But my grandfather never got over having shot a man. My mother said he was such a good shot because in Russia he was expected to shoot the foxes who raided the chicken coop.
Later, my grandmother and grandfather separated, and my grandfather, who had retired, went back to work. A man came in, took out a gun, and asked my grandfather for the money. My grandfather had his gun in his cash register but he did not want to shoot another man. The man took the money and shot him. My grandfather died that night in the hospital. I found this out when I went into my mother’s room and asked her if she knew where my book was and she said, “Don’t bother me! Didn’t I have enough for one night? They killed my father!”
Thus we learn blame. If the first man had not come, if my grandfather had not killed him, he would have shot the second man. He would not have died as he did. If my grandmother had not separated from him he would not have gone back to work and would not have been in the store when the second armed man came in. If things could be undone, if time could be wound back, like a film, if the past could be kept alive to compensate for the deficiencies of the present: These are the wishes that form character, that grow out of events that form character. It does not take much. The tree bends once, twice, then does not bend again. It grows now as it always will.
My grandmother, like my mother, is a great lover of movies and decides she is going to see “Gone With the Wind” the day it opens. She takes her lunch with her, two egg salad sandwiches and a slice of banana cake in a brown bag, but when she gets to Radio City Music Hall, the line is already halfway around the block. When an usher comes by, she collapses at his feet and when he helps her up, she tells him she has a terrible heart. He scolds her and takes her inside. The first person seated, she opens up her bag, eats her egg salad sandwiches and looks around at the canopies and velvet curtains. Well-satisfied, she watches “Gone With the Wind.” My mother asks her, “Aren’t you ashamed?” but of course she is not.
My great-grandmother saved her son’s life when his diphtheria closed his throat and he began to strangle. She poured boiling hot buttermilk down his throat. It opened and somehow he survived. Later, other women brought their choking children to her and she applied the same remedy and most of them survived.
We take a train to the orthodontist’s office, and as I sit in the dentist’s chair I stare out at the Statue of Liberty and here, I think, a sense of irony begins to stir. On the way back, when we walk down the steps from the train station, if I have behaved, my mother buys each of us either a frankfurter or a charlotte russe.We both have to buy the same thing. A charlotte russe is a little slice of sponge cake set in a round cardboard cylinder whose upper border is serrated so that it looks like a crown. A whirl of sweetened whipped cream rests upon and rises above the sponge cake and the pure white cardboard of the cylinder. I am always very careful when I am ready to eat the last bite: If I drop it, it will seem as if I have missed the best part. The charlotte russes, that look like mysterious, foreign buildings built of snow. The doll houses in the toy store windows that I stop and stare at on the way home. To see these things, it is worth opening one’s mouth to the drill.
I am in the school play at P.S. 206. It is my job to hold up a sign that says,”I AM WHEAT.” I am terrified for days in advance, and when it is my turn, I say “I AM WHEAT” as quickly as possible. It occurs to me I would rather write the plays than act in them.
My father’s “Place” is not just one place. While we are at his Place, everyone else talks about his Place. Some of my uncles work for my grandfather, in his Place, and they tell endless stories about one of the uncles who is very lazy but is also married to my grandfather’s youngest daughter, the baby of the family. One day my uncle followed my grandfather around the shop, talking, and finally sat down on a chair. My grandfather, who was a very short man but very strong, became so enraged that he picked my uncle up, chair and all, and threw him over the cutting table.
When we go to my grandfather’s Place, he is cutting pea coats because he has a contract with the Navy. During the Second World War, he cut uniforms for the Army. He is a very wealthy man now, as he was once before when he had a limousine, a chauffeur and little crystal vases filled with fresh flowers fastened to the side of the car. During the Depression he lost everything and wanted to give up and open a dry cleaning store. My grandmother refused to hear of such a thing. “So you’ll sit all day while the machines go around and we’ll starve,” she said. My father always said she forced him to go back into the business. He bought a truck and a sewing machine and began selling suits from the back of it. Eventually he had more sewing machines and enough money to rent a loft. Then the war came and he became a millionaire.
Whenever I am in his Place, there are whispered discussions about how to handle the government inspectors when they come around. His Place is more crowded than my father s and noisier. He is always shouting.
One night my father comes home late. It seems he was robbed. The burglars tied him, his tailor and his cutter to their chairs and stole 200 pairs of pants. My father says, It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if they’d taken the whole suit. What am I going to do with 200 pairs of suits and no pants? Later he says, We should get out of the city. Everyone looks blank. There is no world beyond the city. At the edge of the knowable universe is Monticello and Rhinebeck where wives and children are sent for the cooler summers. Leave the city?
Every now and then, someone calls and says, “You have to come and see my loft.” My new agent has a loft whose address is 105 Fifth Avenue. 123 Fifth Avenue is not far away. I cannot go into these lofts without seeing the almost-invisible blue and black and gray racks of suits stretching into the distance. The shadows of my family walk among the brightly colored modern furniture. The ebony bathrooms remind me of the old toilet in the Place. It flushed when you pulled a wooden handle attached to a long chain that descended from a white box just beneath the bathroom ceiling. As you come up to these lofts, I am run down by the same mobile clothing racks that were pushed through the same streets when I was a child. But there are less and less lofts used for clothing manufacturing. Publishers have taken them over, agents, artists who want “great spaces.” I remember when a loft was a great space if it was large enough to hold the order that had to be filled.
I look at streets on the lower East Side that have been restored in the interest of preserving the city’s cultural heritage and remember stories I was told about children who came home and shouted up for the key and their mothers leaned out the fifth floor window and threw the key, wrapped in a rag, down to them.
It seems clear to me now that in the fate of the individuals the fate of the city was already written and was probably already readable: the separation of my grandmother and grandfather, my grandfather’s death in his drug store, the closing down of one Place after another. Fewer and fewer things come from the ubiquitous Place. Things come from Burma and Thailand and Ecuador. It is as if some magical walls surrounding the city have fallen.
Everything repeats itself, but unnaturally. The women in the kitchen cried for a president dead of natural causes.
You eat the city’s food, you sense the mood of the city, like cold air, like the touch of a wild animal’s cold fur, on your skin, and all of this forms you. Because I was told so often of what the city was like for my great-grandparents and grandparents, I saw how the city was already changing. I was formed not only by my own experiences of the city, but also theirs. I became reclusive, as if I had already lived many lives in the city. There was always someone to tell me what had happened before my birth or what was happening 10 miles from where I lived. Everything was equally alive, equally present, as if I had no sense of past time. It never seemed that my own life was bounded by the years in which I myself had lived. Everyone else’s story— everyone else’s city—flowed in and out of me. I am still not sure there is such a thing as past time. Writing as preserving, writing as memory, writing as elegy: This was what I wanted to do. With few exceptions, my books are inhabited by the characters, by themes, the city thrusts upon me: Vietnam veterans, movie stars first glimpsed in the great movie palaces, in Radio City Music Hall, women from the Caribbean, one of whom worked for us for over 20 years.
The city is a kind of parent. You may not like it. You may flee from it. But, one way or another, against your will or with your cooperation, it forms you. I tell the stories of the past in the present tense, because, when I heard these stories, they were not over. They were happening before my eyes and they continue to happen, bits of time refugee from another present, stuck in my own. In the end, we are not cut whole from one bolt of cloth. In the end, we are all particolored quilts stitched up in the one “Place” that still remains: the city, the world.