“You have a good life, you know that?”
Once again, Landlady Kathy had caught me.
I was trying to sneak out to grab lunch, but right when I thought I’d successfully snuck by Kathy, she appeared with a seamless spin around the staircase knob.
“Take those damn headphones out and listen to me, girl.”
I pulled my headphones out and sat on the third to last stair. Might as well get comfortable.
“You have a good life, coming and going whenever you please.”
I nodded in agreement.
“I used to have a good life”, Kathy muttered.
I rolled my eyes. “Kath, you DO have a good life.”
And that’s when my landlady flipped me off and began her story:
“I’ve told you about the Jew?”
I shifted uncomfortably. It always made me uneasy when she named the people in her stories after their races or religions. I tried to chalk it up to her generation, but then again, this was the same lady that regularly referred to me as “The Stripper”, so maybe this was just how she talked.
“You mentioned him once.”
“Well the Jew, I was his kept woman. Things were different in those days. He had a wife, a famous actress. And his daughter-in-law, you definitely know his daughter-in-law from TV too.”
She told me the name of the TV show that the wife and the daughter-in-law had starred on together. I smiled and told her that my mom and I used to watch their show every night together growing up.
“Yeah, the wife was a talent. But she wasn’t the love of his life. I was. And he was mine.”
I smiled nervously. Sometimes Kathy’s stories cast an ominous spell over my own aspirations. Truthfully, I sometimes wondered if she was some sort of Ghost of Christmas Future, sent by God to warn me what happens to girls who don’t leave Brooklyn before they turn thirty.
“I was his mistress for eight years. Eight whole years. And then one night, he invited me to his son’s Bar Mitzvah. And Clarey Girl, if you coulda seen it. It was 1965 in New York City and it was just…”
She paused, smiling at a memory that I couldn’t see.
“It was just so” - she interrupted herself with a sharp intake of break - “just so glamorous.”
I squinted, trying to peek in on the black and white movie projecting out of her pupils and on to the exposed brick wall.
“And at the reception, after the Bar Mitzvah, all the lights went out. I thought it was the Gambino’s come to collect for once and for all. But then, two lights appeared, slowly sliding on to the dance floor. And God strike me dead if I’m making this up, the Jew’s whole family came riding right on to the dance floor in a custom Ford Model T.”
I shook my head in disbelief.
She kept staring at the wall behind me. Her expression softened and she explained:
“That’s when I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I saw that kid in the car and I just...I just couldn’t do it no moret. Couldn’t be his bit on the side no more. It had been nice to be taken care of for once in my life - steak dinners, trips to the Copacabana on Broadway, all those beautiful dresses. The dresses always came in boxes tied with ribbons. I think I would have loved him just for the ribbons, I do. But after seeing that kid, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was so ashamed of what I had done.”
My heart broke for her.
She had grown up dirt poor, spurned by the family of her father’s child, and left with no choice but to move to the city and send money back home to her son and mother. She was miles from her family, and for the first time in her life, she was the object of the affections of a man who could provide for her.
He gave her the world, but it wasn’t her world to take. It wasn’t right - adultery isn’t ever right. She knew that, and so do I. But it would be absurd for me to pretend not to understand the hunger that drives a broke and terrified New York City girl to reach for something better than she’s ever tasted before. Even if it’s not meant for her plate.
She brought me out of my reverie with a continuation of her story.
“I broke it up after that, but I broke it up all wrong. I’ll never forgive myself for that. I did it all wrong. I hurt him too deep. I shouldn’t have done that.”
My voice fell to a whisper as I asked: “What did you do?”
She shook her head. “I cheated on him. With the Puerto Rican.”
I smiled and found a moment of brevity in my 84 year old land lady’s inability to characterize anyone by anything other than where they came from. If you asked me, the “greatest generation” needed a greater dictionary.
“He was so handsome. But of course he was. You ever met a bad looking Puerto Rican?”
I rolled my eyes and shrugged. It was true though, God had made Puerto Rico beautiful in every way.
“So I brought the Puerto Rican to a club where I knew The Jew had friends...so people would see us together and tell him. So he’d know I was cheating on him. So I’d have a way out.”
My eyes widened. I had known for sometime now that Kathy used to hold money for the Gambino family, but I guess I’d never really expected her to be this gangster in her personal life.
“And sure enough, it worked. I walked right in, flashed my two dollar bill -”
She noticed the confusion in my eyes and explained.
“It was a private club. Your key to entrance was a two-dollar bill. Like I said, the sixties were much more sophisticated than now. Anyway, I got myself and the Puerto Rican into the club, and sure enough, word gets ‘round to the Jew. He came to my apartment that night and confronted me, all mad.”
I could see it playing in front of me. It was cinema quality: Kathy, in her twenties. Red lipstick and a Bridgette Bardot hair-do. Maybe even throwing her pair of little white glovers on the ground in frustration as she lied to the Jew that she didn’t love him. She had never loved him in fact, and that’s why she was cheating on him with the Puerto Rican.
She said he cried.
She said she didn’t.
He said goodbye by giving her a copy of the record to “The Sky Above, The Mud Below.”
She asked if I had heard of it. I hadn’t.
Before finishing her story, she took a long drag of her cigarette.
“He moved to Florida after his wife, the actress, died. Remarried a barmaid I used to work with, whole marriage lasted no more than three months. He calls me sometimes. Asks me to come down and live with him. And I’d like to, but of course I’ve been with my husband now for 46 years, so.”
I closed my eyes, refusing to accept that, sometimes, this is how stories end.
When I got back to my apartment, I looked up the song The Jew had given Kath on that last record.
It wasn’t what I had expected at all. It was an old-timey western, the story of two long haired horse thieves who tried to hold up the Saloon of a Preacher named Deacon. But to the thieves surprise, it’s Deacon who whips out his gun first, sentencing them to death by singing:
“The Old Testament, it says somewhere,
an eye for an eye and hair for hair,
covet not they neighbors mare.”
The song ends with Deacon cutting of the thieves long hair and braiding it into nooses for their final judgement.
I guess all of this is to say: You ever draw your gun too quick, or maybe not quick enough? You ever break your own heart, or hang yourself with your own hair?
I peaked around the corner before heading up the first flight of stairs. There she was, floating in a cloud of cigarette smoke and coffee stains.
At first she didn’t recognize me, which was fair, because I had been gone for a full month. But then all of her wrinkles reassembled into recognition and she grabbed my face with both hands, narrowly missing my cheek with her lit cigarette. “MY CLARE!”
I sat down cross-legged as my 84 year old land lady filled me in on all the gossip I had missed while I was gone. She asked me how I had liked “nasty old Florida”. I told her how much I had loved it, and in a moment of vulnerability, I told her how much it had meant to me to have Catholic community down there.
She took a drag and asked without a hint of malice: “Are the Catholics in New York mean to you because you’re a pole dancer?”
I couldn’t help but grin. Despite knowing that I run a religious education program for a living, Kathy believes that I earn some extra cash...another way.
She had first let me know that “she knew I danced for men” a few months back and in a moment of mischievousness, I hadn’t corrected her.
And truthfully, I’m glad I didn’t - and not just because Kathy is the only person in the world who thinks I can dance.
Kathy and I go to the same church. She even prays the rosary with me - but she’s never once questioned whether or not the “stripper” in Apartment 19 has a place in her Church. I’ve had people in the Church treat me so cruelly for a million much smaller offenses against modesty or purity, but my octogenarian landlady treats me kindly despite her suspicions.
I tell myself that I still haven’t corrected her because it would just be too confusing at this point, but truthfully, I think I haven’t told her because I crave her radical mercy and constant invitation. I needed someone to tell me that as long as there’s room on the stairs for coffee, cigarettes, and conversation, there’s room in the Church for broken people who love God. For strippers and their clients. Tax collectors and their debtors. Addicts and their suppliers.
For land ladies and their tenants, praying on creaking stairway pews - radical mercy extends to all.
The other day, Kathy asked me why I moved to New York.
The idea of explaining spoken word poetry to an 84 year old was a bit daunting, so I eased in.
“Well, I actually moved her to -“
She pressed one finger against my lips, drawing an exclamation mark against my pout.
“Sweetheart”, she whispered. “I’ve known since the day you moved in here. You never had to tell me.”
My mouth opened in shock and my teeth grazed against her finger. It tasted like cigarette ash and coffee grounds.
I pulled back, incredulous.
“Kathy, how’d you know?” I couldn’t believe that she had taken me for a poet from the moment she met me. I felt a giddiness coursing through my veins.
“Oh, Clare.” She smiled. “I’ve known you were a -“ she lowered her voice and looked both ways. “I’ve known you were a dancer, always.”
I felt the blood in my arms and legs start to flow in reverse. Less giddy, more confused.
“Oh yes, dear.” By the why she was whispering and smirking, it was clear she didn’t think I was a ballerina. “And I’m all for it, dear. I wanted to dance when I moved here. I was twenty-three and beautiful, but too short for the stage.”
I pressed the giggles back down into my stomach, not wanting to break the illusion. The wicked glimmer in her eyes told me that this was one of the most exciting things that had happened in her building in awhile. So, I went with it.
“Do your parents know?”
“Yes, they’re very supportive.”
“Good. It’s honest work - don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
“Do the men tip you well?”
“Ok well, if they are ever get fresh, you just call me and I’ll be over there to break some knees faster than you can say Brooklyn Bridge. I know how to - I used to date a Gambino cousin, you know.”
She asked lots of questions and I made up lots of answers. The customers are wealthy. The establishment, honorable. We agreed that it wasn’t one of those sleezy places - not a “strip club”, but a cabaret. It was clear that in this fantasy, I wasn’t just dancing - I was dancing in 1958, when Kathy wanted to dance. We sat there and gossiped like a couple showgirls for an hour or so, until I realized it was it was time to go to work.
“Be safe”, she whispered while squeezing my hand goodbye. And then she followed her warning with a wink - “but be young!!”