Tag Archives: friends

Leaving Degraw Street — Cats (& Neighbors)

21 Nov

After 23 years, we are leaving our third floor apartment on Degraw Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn — move out date is February 1, 2012.  Our landlord, who is elderly and ill and has become legally blind, is selling the building, and has very generously given us a reasonable time to vacate.  The almost 4-month window (we found out he was selling in October) is both positive and negative: positive because it’s giving me time to reflect and reminisce, and negative because it’s giving me lots of time to reflect and reminisce.  

4 — Cats (and Neighbors)

After I’d been in the apartment for about four months I decided I wanted a cat.  (I still couldn’t afford a clock, but a cat isn’t a luxury.)  So, I put the word out to Angie, my landlord’s sister, who lived a couple of doors down.  I figured if anyone knew who had an extra cat on the block, it would be Angie.  Sure enough, she told me that her next door neighbor, Cecilia, had taken in a pregnant stray a few weeks ago, and by now there were probably kittens.  She said she’d ask Cecilia the next time she saw her in the backyard.

A week later I was sitting with Cecilia (who was also pregnant, and wearing a brown corduroy jumper) in her basement, looking into a basket of kittens.

“This one is really rambunctious,” she said, petting a one-month old gray kitten with a wide face.

“That kitty’s got some long whiskers,” I said.  Cecilia laughed.

“So funny you said that, because I’ve been calling it ‘Whiskers’!  I think it’s going to be a real personality!”

That’s the one I took. Cecilia gave me a couple of cans of Old Mother Hubbard cat food and a card for Beastly Bite on Court Street because they were the closest pet supply store (in Brooklyn Heights!), and they delivered — a new concept for me.  I carried the little critter down the street wrapped in a towel — it was Memorial Day weekend, 1989.  Carl named the kitten Willie because we thought it was a boy, but a visit to the vet (also in Brooklyn Heights) for shots cleared that mistake up.  I changed her name to Willie Bird.

Willie Bird was definitely rambunctious, and she had a lot of personality.  She’d sit on my pillow in the mornings and wake me up by batting my head with her paw (I still didn’t need a clock).  I decided to find a friend for her, because I was out of the house so much, with school and work, and so about a month later I was walking past a vacant lot on Bergen Street near Pintchik’s and saw four kittens in a vacant lot.  Two ladies were standing there talking, so I asked them to watch my purse and book bag while I went in there to try and get a kitten.  The cats had gone to ground behind a bush, and so I just stuck my hand into the bush and when I touched fur I yanked it out — a tiny black kitten.  I put it in my book bag, stopped at Key Food for some extra food and a flea collar, and presented the kitten to Willie Bird, who was sitting on the kitchen table.  When Willie Bird gave the kitten — named, at first, Mr. Squeak, and then when we found out it was a female, Squeaky Bird — a head bump, I knew all would be well, as that’s how she communicated affection: by giving head bumps.  That’s how we communicated with each other all day long: by giving each other head bumps.

About a year later I ran into Cecilia.  She’d had her baby, and I asked her what she named him.

“Will,” she said.  “So how’s the kitten?  What did you name it?”

“Willie,” I said, and we both laughed.

Epilogue to Willie’s story: Willie passed away in 2004, at the age of 14.  As the vet (in Park Slope now, of course) put her to sleep she gave me one last head bump before she stopped breathing, as if to say, “This will be the bridge between us, until we meet again.”

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Leaving Degraw Street — Kitchen Window

20 Nov

After 23 years, we are leaving our third floor apartment on Degraw Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn — move out date is February 1, 2012.  Our landlord, who is elderly and ill and has become legally blind, is selling the building, and has very generously given us a reasonable time to vacate.  The almost 4-month window (we found out he was selling in October) is both positive and negative: positive because it’s giving me time to reflect and reminisce, and negative because it’s giving me lots of time to reflect and reminisce.  

4 — Kitchen Window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being on the third floor, my kitchen window has (has, because as I write this I’m still living here) a view of the backyards that abut ours, of the backs of the houses on Douglass Street, the rooftops of the surrounding blocks, and lots of sky.   When I first moved in, the trees in our backyard and in the backyards around us were not tall, so I could see into the back windows of all those houses.  I observed: a woman who regularly came out on her back deck to smoke pot at around 3 every afternoon; a big, black, pot-bellied pig sleeping in the shade, and two fat Basset hounds sniffing around; a starling on a rooftop harassing a sparrow for a piece of bread, and then a hawk swooping down and capturing the starling.  One summer night, as I sat in a chair in front of the open window talking on the phone, I could see a woman biting her toenails in a brightly-lit room.  Very surprised, I said (loudly) to the friend to whom I was talking, “Oh my God — she’s biting her toenails!”  The woman stopped, looked up, left the room quickly, and I felt bad.

On September 11, 2001 I was sitting in the kitchen, drinking green tea and reading page 73 of J.-K. Huysmans’ A Rebours / Against Nature  — “There were other drawings which plunged even deeper into the horrific realms of bad dreams and fevered visions . . . studies of bleak and arid landscapes, of burnt-up plains, of earth heaving and erupting into fiery clouds, into livid and stagnant skies . . . ” — when I heard a “pop!” like someone throwing a firecracker out of a high-rise window.  I thought to myself, “Hmm . . . guess the World Trade Center finally got blown up.”  I continued reading.  Then the phone rang, I let the machine get it, and my friend Ian was saying, “The most surreal thing just happened: I was sitting here on the couch drinking coffee, and then a plane flew over, and then it crashed into the World Trade Center.”   I jumped up, picked it up, said “What?” and he said, “Look out your kitchen window.”

From my kitchen window I once saw the word “She” written across the sky.

From my kitchen window I once saw a figure striding above the clouds, trailing ribbons.

From my kitchen window I often gazed with unfocused eyes in the mornings into the two honey locust trees that grew tall in the backyard.   Doing this created a strange but pleasant (almost ecstatic) sensation of an ethereal light growing brighter, brighter, almost white.  But then when I re-focused on the trees the light resumed its normal intensity.  I wrote about this sensation, in a poem:

the light that we imagine we see

with eyes half closed,

squinting into trees,

is the most beautiful

anyone’s ever seen.

The smaller of those two trees once cradled a tree from another yard that had cracked in half during a storm, and prevented it from hitting our building.

I was looking out at that window at a starless night sky when I spoke — for the first time in thirty-seven years — to the man who, as a child, had proposed to me in first grade.  He’d given me a red plastic ring with a white knight in profile on it, and said, “Now we’re just minutes away from marriage.”  The last time I’d spoken to him was after our last grammar school graduation practice, as we stood with our mothers on the steps of St. John of God Church, and he gave me Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” album.

I was looking out that window at a bright, clear November afternoon sky dotted with white clouds when my sister’s boyfriend called me to tell me she had died three days earlier.

I was looking out that window at a periwinkle blue evening sky when I spoke to her son, my nephew, on the phone after nine years.  The two of us had looked out that window together nineteen years earlier, when he was eight and visiting Brooklyn with my mother.  It was the only time either of them had left Chicago.

I was looking out that window on the last day of May, 2010, wondering if my sister had made it through the bardo okay, if her soul had finally found requiem.  And so I asked for a sign, something so cliché and yet so unusual it could only be a sign, and plus something not possible on a clear cloudless day: a rainbow.  And so I waited at the window, waited and waited, waited staring at the sky.  Fifteen minutes went by, and I was about to walk away when the boy next door appeared in the yard to water his mother’s flowers.  He went around the perimeters with the garden hose, and then moved to a far corner at the back.  As he shifted position the water arced high, opposite the afternoon sun that had not yet disappeared behind the houses, and the shimmering colors appeared in the swath of the water from the hose.

Against Nature, J-K. Huysmans, Penguin Classics, translation by Robert Baldick,1959

From “Just This” by Sharon Mesmer, from The Virgin Formica, poems, Hanging Loose Press, 2008

Leaving Degraw Street — Al (Neighbors, continued)

19 Nov

After 23 years, we are leaving our third floor apartment on Degraw Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn — move out date is February 1, 2012.  Our landlord, who is elderly and ill and has become legally blind, is selling the building, and has very generously given us a reasonable time to vacate.  The almost 4-month window (we found out he was selling in October) is both positive and negative: positive because it’s giving me time to reflect and reminisce, and negative because it’s giving me lots of time to reflect and reminisce.  

* * * * * * * * *

It got to be a regular thing: I’d open the foyer door, Al would appear in the doorway of his kitchen and say, “Cup o’ coffee, Sharon?”  If I had some free time I’d take him up on his offer, and sometimes even if I didn’t I’d take him up anyway.  I knew he was lonely and wanted someone to talk to.  I knew someday I might be that way, too.

“Oh, excuse me, Sharon,” he’d usually say as I walked in.  “Lemme go put a shirt on.”

It wasn’t like he was shirtless; most times he had on a white Hanes v-neck undershirt (during the summer he wore a tank).  By “shirt” he meant a light, short-sleeved sports shirt — the kind our dads would throw on when they had to make a run to the hardware store in the summer.

Back in the kitchen he’d finish buttoning up, set the glass percolator on the burner, and ask, “Frankfu’ter?”  I’d say yes, and he’d quickly fill a pot with water and throw two hot dogs in.

“So, what’s new, Sharon?”

“Nothin’ much, Al.”

Actually, by the time I was down there regularly there was a lot going on: I was doing one-on-one tutorials with Allen Ginsberg as part of my MFA/poetry studies at Brooklyn College, Carl and I were having problems (and would soon split, after almost five years together), and my dad had been diagnosed with bladder cancer back in Chicago.

“You seem sad, Sharon.”

“Yeah, Al, I am.  Sad and tired.  There’s too much going on.”

“You know what the best thing for that is?  Just sit and talk foolishness.  Don’t think about your problems — just talk foolishness for a while.  Did I ever tell you about the time I went to a nudist colony?  My friend Armand — I told you about him; most brilliant guy I ever knew.  Oh, I’m tellin’ you — he had more degrees than a thermometer.   So Armand says to me one day, ‘Why doncha come with me on a picnic?’  I thought: a picnic?  Hey, I like the outdoors, you know?  So, we get there, and he says, ‘Al, you’re gonna have to drop your clothes off over there . . . it’s a nudist colony.’  Nudist colony?  Well, I was there, you know . . . I couldn’t just leave ’cause he drove me there . . . so, I had to drop my clothes!”

“Well, how was it?”

“It wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t half bad.  After an hour, you just get used to it, you know?  Only problem was, I kept worryin’ about my wallet, ’cause you can’t keep your wallet with you — where you gonna put it? ”

I laughed.  “But you had a good time?”

He furrowed his brow in a definitive way and nodded.  “Oh, yeah.  Armand knew how to live.  I mean, it wasn’t Carroll Street, but I had a good time.”

Al had grown up on Carroll Street, four blocks away, in the ’20’s.  He loved to talk about Park Slope back then.

“A girl never had to be afraid of walkin’ down the avenues then.  You know why?  The mafia.  Oh, they kept the streets safe.  They knew who was who, and who didn’t belong where.  You didn’t dare cross 5th Avenue if you had no business crossin’ 5th Avenue.  You know what I mean?  Because between them and the cops, everybody knew their place.   I lost count of how many times I got cracked across the head by the cops when I was a kid, for bein’ where I was wasn’t supposed to be.  Police brutality?  Gimme a break.  There was no police brutality then.  Cop said you weren’t supposed to be there, you got outta there!  And even while you were gettin’ outta there, sometimes they’d crack you ‘cross the head anyway, just for good measure.  Listen, you could be drunk as a lord on the avenue when I was a kid, and you didn’t have to worry about someone robbin’ you, ’cause the cops and the mafia took care of the neighborhood.  You know?”

Al was good friends with our landlord, Nick, and took the Union Street bus over to 7th Avenue almost every day to hang out in Nick’s office on Carroll Street, behind Manufacturer’s Hanover bank (now Chase).  Nick had been an accountant with Met Life for years, but at some point he and a partner, Fred, took off on their own and rented a second floor office on Carroll just off 7th Avenue — F&P Accounting, they called themselves.  For a few years, before TurboTax, Nick did my taxes.

(You think that’s weird, my landlord doing my taxes?  It is.  But Nick had a very different, very special relationship with his tenants.  Keep reading.)

Al would always report when he’d seen Nick, and that Nick had said to say hi.  After Carl moved out, and my college friend Marianne moved in, Al would always say, “Nick said to say hi to the girls.”

Around 1994, Al was diagnosed with some kind of cancer.   He never told me exactly what the diagnosis was, but from the change in his attitude I knew he wouldn’t live much longer.   One day he asked me what was a good wine in the $50 range.

“You’re askin’ me?”  I said.  “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout no wines.”

“Well, what kind do you like?  What’s your favorite?”

I knew he was angling to buy me a bottle of wine, but I didn’t want him to spend his money on that.  I had a better idea.

“You know, why don’t you just buy me dinner?  I would love to have dinner with you, maybe at Aunt Suzie’s.  You like that place?”

I figured we’d go there, and I’d pass my credit card to the server on my way to the restroom, and treat Al.

“Okay, you got a deal.  But Dave won’t get jealous, will he?”  (My future husband, David, had moved in 1992.)

“Well, he’ll just have to deal with it,” I said.  “Besides, do you see a diamond ring on my finger?!”

Al was a little angry that I fooled him, but I didn’t care.  He was my first friend in Brooklyn, the first member of the family that I somehow managed to create around me, and buying him dinner was the very least I could do for him.   He died in 1995, in his sleep, around 2 a.m.  I knew because the next morning there was a squad car in front of the house, and the next day his son and daughter-in-law came by to begin cleaning out his apartment.

Years later, while visiting my mother, she handed me a letter Al had written to her after my father died:

“Mrs. Mesmer,

You don’t know me, but I live in the same house as your daughter.  No, we have different apartments.  I’m sorry to hear about Mr. Mesmer.  He must have been a heck of a guy, from what I hear from Sharon.  Mrs. Mesmer, I am not one to send Mass cards.  My wife always was the card sender.  I hope you won’t feel offended if instead of a card I am sending you this.  Please get a nice frame for his picture.  I’m sure you have a frame but it’s the least I could do for someone I’ve never met.   I’ve often wanted to write to him, but Sharon didn’t give me an address.  Sharon is a wonderful girl — we all love her and share her grief.  I won’t go on any longer, Mrs. Mesmer.  I’ll close.  I hope what I did has not offended you.  Please accept my deepest sympathy.

Al — Sharon’s first floor neighbor”

Next: Kitchen Window