“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?
This morning, I awoke to messages from strangers, alerting me that my face had been photoshopped onto naked pictures and posted on a porn site with over two millions and viewers. The pictures are down now - but in the moment, I felt so much shame and embarrassment and fear. The pictures had been posted next to screenshots of my real information. Viewers had my name, workplace, and hometown. Chillingly, all of the posts seemed to be religiously motivated, fetishizing my beliefs.
That’s the less interesting story.
The more interesting story is about the lady in the second photo. Kathy started as my landlady, but has quickly become a grandmother figure to me. When I told her what had happened and showed her the pictures the first thing she said was: “Sorry baby, but that don’t look like you. Your tits ain’t that big.”
The second thing she told me was the story of her first love, Eddie McCloskey. She was a cheerleader and Eddie was, of course, the quarterback. When they were 17, they tried to elope - but when she arrived at the Bethlehem, PA train station, Eddie wasn’t there. To her horror, his mother and sister were waiting instead. His mother slapped her in front of everyone at the station and his sister demanded that Kathy return every gift Eddie had ever given her, including “that 12 Cent engagement ring turning your finger black.” His sister told her that the cheap ring was turning her finger black because Eddie had never really loved her at all.
Kathy was shamed and embarrassed by Eddie’s family in 1952, sixty-seven years ago. I was shamed and embarrassed by an anonymous coward, today.
But as I sat in Kathy’s living room and listened to her recount the day she thought her life ended, I looked around and smiled at the life she had began anyway. After being stood up and put down, Kathy Garcia moved to New York City and became a bar maid. She dated, she married. She had a son, and then grandkids. Kathy is my land lady and my friend - and today she was a reminder that no person or situation can take away my ability to make something beautiful. Love replaces fear, and strong women replace 12 Cent engagement rings and bad photoshop jobs.
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.
Everytime the bartender handed me a straw, I pretended it was something new.
The first time, I just opened my mouth and pretended he was lighting me a cigarette.
“These damn things’ll kill me yet”, I muttered, taking a long drag of black plastic.
The next straw, plucked out of a drink he made me, was a flower. I tried to playfully tuck it behind my ear, but instead dropped it on to the sticky bar floor.
He rolled his eyes and plucked me another straw from a bouquet of ‘em he had stashed in a whiskey glass.
I opened my mouth and planted it like a daisy, square between my smile. Turning to survey the bar, I found my friends and opened my mouth to call them over.
Out fell the straw.
“Mister Bartender, please don’t kill me but I -“
He was ready this time though, a new straw already dangling between his fingertips.
I clicked the end of this new straw with my thumb, imagining it a ball point pen, and began to ink my next poem in the soft wood of the bar.
“What’re you doing?” he laughed.
I chewed on the edge of my straw-point-pen, sipping inspiration for it’s next manifestation.
“Writing about you” I said, holding out my palm, hoping he’d understand what I wanted.
He reached behind the bar and presented a handful of straws, rolling them on to my outstretched hand like a pile of Lincoln Logs.
I smiled at my handful of cigarettes and flowers and pens and Lincoln Logs. I could really build something with this.
I met him through a friend.
Through a bunch of friends, really. He was everyone’s friend before he was my friend.
It’s not worth telling you what his real job is, because if you’re not from here then you just won’t get it - but all you really need to know is that he’s basically The Man You Go To When You Need Something.
And there’s a tall stool behind his work bench, but it’s not for him, ‘cause men in his position do much better standing.
Standing and walking,
standing and selling,
standing and buying.
No, that stool is for whoever the “lucky girl” is, and that wasn’t me. It wasn’t that I was unlucky - he and fortune favored my friends and I pretty well, pouring us tequila shots into little medicine cups every time we stopped by. But I had never been lucky enough to be the girl sitting on the high stool,
watching over the counter,
watching over Brooklyn,
watching over the world.
And that was fine, I convinced myself, ‘cause I’m not much of a sitter or a watcher anyways.
Until one day, I was invited on to the stool.
To sit, and watch.
And I realized that New York City feels a little different when you’ve been offered a seat at the table. Feels a little different when you get a break from the running and the hustling, and someone asks you to sit. Feels a little different to be a little higher than the rest of the room, and to just be still.
It was the first time I had really felt “invited” in New York City and I felt immovable, impassable - ineradicable.
It felt like I finally had a seat at the city’s table, and it felt like now that I had this seat, nothing could move me.
I met him on the dance floor.
Well, I don’t know if “met” is even the right word. It’s just that one minute he wasn’t there, and the next minute he was everywhere.
He was up, he was down.
He was in front of me, he was behind me.
He grabbed my hand and wound me towards him like a yoyo, shouting “HELLO, MY NAME IS -“
and then spun me back out.
In and out I spun, never quite able to figure out what exactly the name he kept repeating was.
“YOU REALLY WANNA DANCE?” he yelled over the roaring music.
“YES!” I yelled back, giddy with bass and beer and the feeling of being a girl wearing all black on a Friday night in New York City.
“YES, YOU WHAT?” he screamed, dipping me on to the floor and lacquering the tips of my hair in puddles of beer and sweat.
Inhibitions forgotten somewhere in the ladies room with my my purse and phone, I screamed back:
“YES! YES, I REALLY WANNA DANCE!”
Suddenly, his voice got impossibly quiet as he whispered, “Well, ok then.”
And in an instant, I was in the air.
Above the dance floor I floated, a beautiful bar ballerina. I was Clara in the Nutcracker! Sandy in the flying car! Amelia disappearing above the Pacific!
I WAS FLYING!
Three times, he spun me above the noise and the motion before lowering me back into reality. Three rotations around the disco ball sun, a planet pulled by the force field of a stranger.
I met him in the dressing room.
“What do you think of this one?” a thick accent spoke into my space, clouding my concentration.
Annoyed, I looked up. Less annoyed after seeing his smile, I looked him up and down.
“Honestly, I think it’s your color.”
“It does bring out my eyes right?”
I laughed, for the first time that day.
I was working a job I hated in a city that seemed to hate me. At the entrance of the dressing room every day, people made it clear that to them, I was just a big, annoying clothes rack standing in between them and their chance to look at themselves in a full sized mirror.
And now here was this broad shouldered, green-eyed stranger asking my honest-to-God opinion about whether or not those cargo pants made his butt look big. It wasn’t just refreshing, it was exhilarating.
He stood by my dressing room station for over an hour, telling me about the place he was from, the place’s he’d been and the places he wanted to go. He was a true adventurer and the most genuine hippy I had ever met.
And when we met for tea the next day, to swap adventure stories and tear off little pieces of ourselves and hide them in each other’s pockets, I decided that this might be one of the purest souls I had ever encountered. Every time his long hair fell in his eyes as he was listening to me tell a story, he’d push it back quietly and quickly. And maybe I’m just silly, but somehow I got the notion he was always pushing his hair back because he was honestly interested in seeing me tell my stories.
I met him on the L train.
He was wearing neon orange parachute pants, a Cartoon Network graphic tee, and bright white platform sneakers. Everything about him screamed “CREATIVE” - even the way his fingers danced a chorus line kick against the railing he held on to.
Was he looking at me? I couldn’t tell. Was I looking at him? I bet he could tell. We both had our headphones in, anyway. And this is New York, anyway. Why would anything happen, anyway?
So I settled for a game of eye contact roulette. You know how to play- everyone knows how to play. You make sure to look away every time he looks over, that way he’ll never even possibly be able to guess that you’re checking him out.
In fact, every time he looked over I made a big show of fixing and tightening the straps on my overalls. In the end, it turned out to be more effective at giving me a monster wedgie than an alibi for ogling, ‘cause moments later he slid me his phone, opened to the Notes page. He had written: “I like your overalls. And I think you’re really pretty.” ME? He pretties my overalls and likes he thinks me?? Wait, what? My face grew hot as I released a smile and probably a little drool. “Thank you”, I mouthed, to which he smiled the kind of smile that made me think I should wear overalls more often.
And then we were at his stop. As I watched him saunter off, I thought, “MAN, that was probably the one. And there he go...wait a second, isn’t this my stop too?” I squeezed through the wall of angry commuters and onto the platform just in time to catch the tip of his brilliant, bold head disappearing up the stairs!
I had to catch him!
So I raced up the stairs, barreling through the clasped palms of lovers, knocking over teetering old ladies, stepping on children’s tiny toes.
And there he was, standing on a platform, drawing on the tiled wall with a sharpie. He drew an abstract face, checked over each shoulder, and ducked back into the crowd.
A street artist? A vandal? I was more determined than ever.
So I did all the math I always told my geometry teachers I’d never be able to do, and with just the right speed and force, I “accidentally” bumped into him as he crossed Union Station.
I met him in a pub called “The Craic”.
The bar itself was sleek and modern. Leather love seats and huge mirrored walls whispered to patrons as soon as they walked in: “Your beer is going to be $12, so drink it slowly.” Nothing about the bar felt particularly Irish at all.
The flocks of Colleen’s and Padraig’s fleeing from the rain and into the Craic’s dimly lit quartets, however, were delightfully authentic. I would have been able to pick them out anywhere: the girls with their high hair and higher heels, the boys with their football shoulders and armies of freckles marching clear into their hairlines. The sweet lilt of Dublin mixed with the incomprehensible muttering of Tyrone and for a minute, I considered quitting drinking all together and putting the money instead towards a trip home - but then something caught my eye.
There it was, it’s cheek pressed miserably against the sticky bar ceiling: a shiny, gold cellophane balloon shaped like a 3. “Ah” I said a little too loud, “some poor sucker must be turning 30. Another good one gone too soon.”
I climbed atop the loveseat, teetering on my stilettos and reaching for the elusive 3, deigning it my treasure and yes, in my beer-addled mind cheered, my destiny! Shiny, mine! 3, mine! Stretch! Almost there! Just four more feet above my head!
And then, just like that, it was in my hands. My prized 3, clutched against my rapidly beating heart. Did I really just do that? Was this the true power of girl power? Can I do anything I set my mind to?
“You’re welcome”, laughed a cocky Leprechaun from somewhere above me.
An impossibly tall Irish man, stood next to me, the real retriever of my beloved 3. I craned my head to get a good look at him in the dark pub.