Tag Archives: Park Slope

Leaving Degraw Street

20 Jan

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 very generously gave us a reasonable time to vacate — he told us of his plans four months ago.

But now the countdown winds down: 10 days . . .

5 — Visitors

The last week of July, 1992, my mother and eight year-old nephew, Nicholas, stayed with me for a week.  The purpose of the trip was to maybe find them a place in Brooklyn, as my dad had died two years before and my mom was raising Nick by herself (my sister, Nick’s mom, had disappeared around 1987).  I didn’t want them to be alone, but I couldn’t move back there, so I thought getting them an apartment near me was the optimal workaround.

I had taken Amtrak to Chicago to get them, and then all three of us took the train to New York.  As we rode in a cab from Penn Station (their first New York City cab ride), I pointed the Empire State Building out to them, at the end of the 34th Street urban canyon.

“It looks so small,” my mother said, disappointed.  “I thought it would be big . . . bigger than the Sears Tower.  You would think, after all that’s been written about it.”

“Where’s King Kong?  Ha-ha!” said Nick.  Judging by the expression on his face, he was clearly very satisfied with the building’s appearance.

The first thing my mom did her first day in Brooklyn was to go to the Key Food on Fifth Avenue and buy the same kinds of groceries she bought at “the Jewel” (“the Jewel” = what every single Chicagoan calls the Midwest chain grocery store officially named “Jewel”): coffee, Polish sausage, rolls, coffee cake, lunch meat, hot tamales, and Dippity-Do (“wave set”).

She also bought a selection of Brach’s candy for Nick, which still came in the famous red and white striped bag.  (I didn’t even know you could get Brach’s candy at the Key Food.)

We visited the other Nick, my landlord, at his office on Carroll Street, just off 7th Avenue: “Big Nick and Little Nick,” he smiled, and I imagined “Little Nick” living in Park Slope, going to school down the street from me.  I imagined picking him up and walking him home on a cool fall day, the dry leaves blowing around the brownstones, having dinner with him and Mom (canned spaghetti and Mott’s apple sauce, probably) in the kitchen of their new place.  I had a friend — a former student of mine from my days at Brooklyn College, actually — who was a realtor, and she set up some apartment showings for us in Park Slope.  The places were nice, but after the third one Mom didn’t want to look at any more.

“I don’t wanna move here, Sharon,” she said, as we walked back to my place, past the Square Stores on Fifth Avenue.  “I don’t know no one here.  I’d be all alone.”

“What are you talking about?” I said. “I live here!  You’d be a few streets away.”

“Oh, you’d be goin’ to your poetry readings and what-have-you . . .”

“Do you think I go to readings every single minute of every single day?”

Diffidently, she retied her blue and white kerchief behind her head and that was the end of that.  I could tell they wouldn’t be moving to New York.

Nick went with me everywhere that week.  David and I took him to Two Boots for pizza and he stood with the other kids at the big window with a view of the kitchen and watched the guys make pizza.  He clutched the little piece of dough the cook gave him all the way way.  At my yoga class in Manhattan the next day he did the exercises and chants along with everyone else.  Ravi Singh, the teacher, always turned the lights down low once the class began, and back at home Nick told Mom, “I did aerobics in the dark!”  As we entered the subway to catch the R train to the Staten Island Ferry terminal I thought, “I will always remember my mom walked here.  Her energy will always be here, at the corner of Union and Fourth Avenue.”

David and I had a party in the back yard for them.  We invited my downstairs neighbor Al, my friends Bart Plantenga and Deborah Pintonelli, and a few others I can’t remember now.  Nick made little drawings on Post-Its — portraits of everyone at the party — and went around trying to sell them for a dollar each.  I think Al developed a crush on my mom.

When their visit was over I went with them to Penn Station to get the Amtrak back to Chicago.  Nick cried.  I cried when I got home, taking the sheets off the cot he had slept on in the living room, picking up the big watercolor drawings he was working on which were scattered all over the living room floor.  I loved him so much.  What would happen to him if his grandmother died?  For many years we lived with this uncertainty, and it colored almost the entire decade of the ’90’s for me.   But that color was itself colored by love.  A few days after they left someone gave me, as a present, a deck of tarot cards.  I pulled a card at random; it was the Ace of Hearts, depicted as a small but brilliant heart rising from a jeweled chalice.

Twenty years after that visit, ten years after my mother’s death, I still see her in her navy blue Midwestern windbreaker and blue and white kerchief going down the Union Street subway stairs: holding on to the railing, going slowly, a step at a time, and Nicholas holding her other hand.

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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.”

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

Leaving Degraw Street — Neighbors

18 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.   

2 — Neighbors

Al lived on the first floor and Millie and Jimmy lived on the second.  All were elderly, Italian, and life-long Brooklyn-ites.  Al’s wife Mary had passed away a few years before, and Jimmy was Millie’s brother-in-law (her husband, Tex, and his wife, whose name I never knew, had passed away as well, and so they’d decided to join forces).  Jimmy often stood at the front gate in his overcoat, just watching things.  Millie was somehow related to our landlord and his sister, Angie, who lived a few doors down.  Al had lived on the first floor for … I don’t remember how long now.  He’d raised a son and a daughter there, both of whom had moved to New Jersey.  Millie was blind, and every hour we’d hear her talking clock, which she kept in the room beneath our bedroom, tell the hour, accompanied by a synthesized chime.  Since we still didn’t have our own clock, Millie’s clock and the clock tower we could see from the kitchen window (it was the Williamsburgh Bank Building, we learned, though it seemed mostly unoccupied but for dentists’ offices) were enough to keep us awake and apprised of time.

I must’ve met Al the day we moved in, but I didn’t really start talking to him until I ran into him at the Key Food on Fifth Avenue, a few weeks later.  He was a short, lithe man with some teeth missing and dark splotches near his temples.  He wore the kind of horn-rimmed glasses that Groucho Marx wore in his later years — he looked a little like Groucho in his later years, in fact — and a gray tweed golf cap whenever he went out.  We walked home from the store together, and when we got back to the building he said, “Cup o’ coffee?”

“Sure,” I said, and followed him into his apartment.

I sat down at the short side of his gray Formica kitchen table, and he set a glass Pyrex stove pot percolator on a burner and turned the knob.  The stove clicked three times before the blue flame appeared.  In front of his kitchen window hung a macrame planter with a dead plant tendrilling down.

“My wife made that planter,” he said.  “She always made things.  But since she died, I never remember to water the plant.  Whaddaya like in your coffee?”

He moved the sugar bowl that sat on the table in front of me, and took a bottle of milk with a rubber spout from the fridge and set it down next to the sugar bowl.

“I like to keep my milk in his bottle,” he said.  “I use it over and over.  Keeps the smells from the other food from gettin’ in the milk, you know?”

“That’s a good idea,” I said, and mentally made a note to buy a large size V-8 the next time I went to the store — V-8 because I figured it most closely resembled the shape of Al’s bottle.  I liked the idea of keeping milk in a bottle — it seemed old-fashioned, also practical (because of the smells).

I could hear a talk radio program in the background; he probably had a radio on in his living room.  I asked him what he was listening to.

“Oh, just some nonsense.  WABC.  I don’t really listen.  It’s just somethin’ to keep things from bein’ too quiet, you know?  Would you like somethin’ to eat?  I can fry you a filet if you’re hungry.”

He opened his refrigerator and took out a fish filet, wrapped in white paper and stored in a clear Glad bag labeled with the date, in black marker.  I wasn’t sure what to do — decline, and offend him somehow, or accept, and take up his time.

“I would love one,” I said, “if it doesn’t take up too much of your time.”

He made a face — furrowed brow, downturned mouth — shook his head and said, “No time at all!  No time at all . . . I’m grateful for the company.  Can I call you ‘Sharon’?”

“Sure,” I said. “Can I call you Al?”

“Hey — you can call me anything,” Al announced, in a grand way, with one hand on his chest, “just don’t call me late for supper!”

I laughed.  My dad used to say that.