Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bells from the Past: Old Boyfriends Chime In

By my age, everyone has something of a past. And parts of that past always stand out more than others.

For me, one remarkable moment was my last year of graduate school at Columbia, where my aspirations to become a famous poet were humming along. Let's say it's the late 70s, a kind of TAXI DRIVER ambiance pervades the city, bar after bar on the Upper West Side blinks its name and wares in aqua or pink neon lights, and one block from Dodge Hall was considered the ghetto, or Harlem as we now know it. I was studying with Nobel laureates, editing the school literary magazine, and thinking about my first book. For years I had lived with a very kind and sweet guy, then a law student - let's call him Jeremy. And all of a sudden my heart got taken hostage by another, very quickly one day at one of those bars, I looked at this man and knew my life was about to change forever. Let's call him Miles, like "miles to go before I sleep." He was, after all, a writer in my program and a good one at that. I fell in love, left Jeremy, stayed with Miles until we burned out, and eventually ended up with neither of them.

When my finances began their downward spiral this winter, it was these two men I thought of. Jeremy first, of course, because I thought he would easily be able to help me with a loan and would also be compassionate about my situation and likes to help people. Miles, well, because I still think about Miles a lot. Not every day, but at least once a week because it was with him that I had the best sex of my life. He was not as nice as Jeremy, he did not understand things as astutely as Jeremy, but he got right down into the muckiness and mess of our mutual chemical dependence on each other's physical selves. The dark side, the shadow, as Jung might call it, got full throttle with Miles. And I felt like I was slipping into a truly dark place that he would understand. With Jeremy, the sun was always shining and, if not, a replacement for it had to be found immediately. No shadows allowed.

So I emailed Jeremy and asked him to call me on my cell, I had a favor to ask. He did call me,more quickly than I anticipated, and we traded small talk and biographical details for about 15 minutes when I finally just said "if I do not ask you this right now, I never will." I told him I needed a $5,000 loan for six month.s The silence on the other end of the line was so thick I thought he had hung up. "Wow," he said when he collected himself, "wow." I felt the first tickle of impatience in my stomach. Then I am hearing about the children still in college, how people are not paying their bills (Jeremy is a defense attorney), and how he would have to ask his wife. Now the wife and I have a checquered history which is whole other story; but I knew the moment he said those words I was dead in the water, and waves of sadness rushed over me. "OK, sure," is what came out. And at that point, he pulled into his office parking lot and had to hang up the phone.

Miles, on the other hand, despite a less tactful and calculated approach to life, chose this moment to prove he really could be empathetic. "You will always have family as long as I am alive," he wrote, "and if I had the money, I'd give you thrice what you need." Of course, he has no money. Miles is a part-time professor and full time dad to a lately conceived 11 year old who has him busy deciphering the body language of parents at little league games, which mystifies him. The real world was never Miles' best suit; he had been able to write brilliantly subdued fiction and now his life did not allow him that, or so he perceived. We wrote back and forth via email, and the result is we truly are friends again and probably always were. He married the woman he originally dumped for me, and so he is kind of consistent. The one thing I saw about Miles that I had not seen when we could not keep our hands off each other was how tightly he was now holding onto his family. I used to think he was the opposite of Jeremy - one wild, one tame - but in this, they were equal and the same.

The only difference in this moment was that Jeremy -- having studied Jungian psychology in Switzerland, ever the referee and problem-solver among his friends and family -- couldn't really deal with my fortunes being on the skids. He didn't call me back for a week, and then instead wrote me an email saying he could not afford to loan me money for all the reasons he had stated previously but to keep in touch with him. I was and am not sure if he felt horror, anger, fear or any of the above. Let me just say one thing about Jeremy's wife - she is, was, and always has been very wealthy. The fact that she 'dated' him for two years in the car that took them back and forth between Manhattan and their Long Island law school (my car, in fact) doesn't even enter her head, and certainly not his, nor all the things Jeremy never disclosed at the time, wanting to play it safe until he watched me get enveloped by Miles, at which point all bets were off.

So where I thought I would be thanking Jeremy and forgiving Miles for some ridiculous response, it is the opposite. I thank Miles for the time he is taking to talk to me, to remind me of who I am, to tell me (not in so many words) that I will be OK. Jeremy, well, I lived with the guy for five years and I never for one moment felt taken for granted or simply ignored and now I do. For all the times I stepped on his soft spots, I am sorry; and I forgive him his inability to either tell me what he really thinks of all this or find a way to help me when I know if he wanted to, he could. Without Jeremy, I would never have grown up and accomplished all that I have done; he gave me language and tools to work through problems. Without Miles, I would never have grown into myself as a woman. And although I am poverty-stricken, I have riches aplenty from moving through interesting life cycles, two of which, these guys, have made it all the more worthwhile, all the light and shadow, for better and for worse.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Good as Gold

I bet you don't know about the Provident Loan Society in New York City; not many people do. It sits obscurely at the corner of 25th Street and Central Park South in a very small very old-time bank-like building, in a part of Manhattan that has little or no identity. And I think Provident likes it that way -- to be as anonymous as possible.

Provident is a non-profit lender that makes small loans based on collateral of gold and jewelry - mostly gold. The loans are six months in length and if you cannot pay them off at that time, you get by with just paying interest. You go into a small, neutral-colored room with four bank teller windows covered with bullet proof glass and four chairs to sit in, and wait for an associate to help you fill out the almost negligible forms. Family legend has it that my father, who died 20 years ago, would take his more worthless gold coins and fragments there and get money to feed his gambling habit. My brother tells stories of having to wait in the car at rush hour in Manhattan while my father waited in line to get dough for his gold. It made him (my father) gleeful that he could trade what he saw as junk for greenbacks. And it made for many hours over the blackjack tables in Atlantic City.

I took my first Provident loan out sometime in the late 90s. I do not remember much, except it was for 4-500 dollars and I paid it back almost immediately. Over the years, I have been known to take out small loans here and there. But with this latest downturn, I suddenly owed Provident 2,100 dollars that I just didn't have. I had the due date circled in red on my calendar.

I called up the office and got a guy with a sense of humor; I told him my problem. "Why are you sweating it," he asked, "just let us put the material at auction, your loan will be paid, and you might even get some extra money from it which we would pay to you. Gold IS at an all time high." He asked if there was anything in my collateral of sentimental value; I said no, but hoped the gold nugget dug from my grandfather's short-lived gold mine in Fresno, California in 1928 was not in the group (it wasn't). I pursed my lips; I shivered. I hated not being able to pay something off. No matter that it could work out better for everyone; my nails were bitten, by the time of the auction, almost to the quick. And then I forgot about it.

So here we are at the end of April, a month after my gold has gone the way of all goods at a New York auction gallery. I go to my mailbox and there is a note from Provident. The envelope was very thin and I felt like I did when I had been rejected from Sarah Lawrence College. So I very slowly opened it. "Your valuables," it informed me, "have been sold as required by law and there is an overage." Good, I thought, maybe couple of hundred dollars, and then I thought I was reading it wrong. "The overage," it stated, "is 2,775 dollars and you need to come in and file paperwork so we can give you a check."

I was there the next day; the money is now in my bank account. Rocco, my Yorkie, can have his rabies shot and yearly health scan; I can pay my accountant for my 2006 returns (I am catching up). I can even pay the attorney working on my possible eviction. And now I am looking everywhere for gold and I've found more brooches, a chain or two, all of which mean nothing to me unless they generate some greenbacks. And how does all this strike me? I have only one thing to say: it's divinely Providential.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Private School Vs. Private Parts.....

I went to private school in one of the oldest cities in America, a school to which George Washington sent his stepchildren and where a large bell from that era still heralds the start of the school day.

We wore uniforms that consisted of pleated plaid skirts, navy blazers piped with the same plaid under which we had short-sleeved white shirts with Peter Pan collars (the collar closed with a circle pin), navy blue knee socks and dark loafers (Weejuns were the thing in those days. The ones with the leather fringe that you'd bend back to make the shoes look worn).

Our rebellion consisted - among the girls - of seeing how high we could hike up our skirts until the dreaded headmistress dragged us down to her office or we were sent there by a new algebra teacher with a mission. The headmistress, let's call her Miss McCray, was a tall, slightly mannish woman with unruly black curls and, usually, a smile on her face. Except when she was called to skirt duty - then she was all business. We would go into her office where first she would make us kneel and then she would take out her old wooden ruler.

I know you are expecting some horrific story of child abuse, but all Miss McCray wanted was to measure the length of our skirts and make sure they were NO MORE than 4 inches above the knee while kneeling. It was the absolute law - even written in a terse letter to our parents, guardians of our virtue. I was in that office at least twice a week, while (let's call her) Poppy Mast was in there more but got detention less. Poppy's dad was on the board of trustees until indicted for tax issues years later. I once sat in Poppy's living room and listened to her father kick a suitcase around in the room over us, upset that I was there on a school night or perhaps for other reasons not relevant here.

Anyway, I digress. I usually got detention along with a thorough scolding that my underwear was not meant for public view. Detention consisted of being sent to a boys' home room (we had separate classes). Where anyone got the idea that this was punishment for girls, I'll never know. It was a chance to try and pull down Mark Maresco's socks with my toes, or to smile at Mr. Miracolo, the yummy teacher of French who ran the home room and who, 8 years later, actually asked me for a date. I was usually exiled to the boys' side with Susie Sperber, a buxom blonde with a big laugh and lots of jangly gold bracelets. You could hear us laughing and jangling, I think, in the next county.

So here I am, poverty stricken and suddenly, once again, creating a uniform that I can vary slightly day to day so i do not have to buy new clothes. I have my private school to thank for the idea - it's extremely liberating. Black pants, black top, red top, black pants, colorful scarf, long coat, short trench, earrings or no earrings. Gone are the days when I am thrilled to show off my Hanes cotton bikinis, but I do like a little cleavage now and then. Sometimes I wonder if I go too far and what Miss McCray might think the appropriate decollete would be. 5 inches from the base of the throat while looking straight ahead? I think Miss McCray would find that acceptable.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Taxis vs. Public Transport

Today, Easter, I took a bus uptown to work. This is a new vista for me, public transport. The bus was late, crowded, and since it looked like the Crips and the Bloods had set up house there, I stood for most of the trip to 57th Street. Taking the bus is so, well, real. I looked up to read all that billboard drivel that lines the walls above the windows. There was a quote from Shakespeare, from THE TEMPEST: "o brave new world/that has people such as these in it" or something to that effect. I looked around. Yes, it is a brave new world. Indeed.

I'm trying to make the best of my own new world order. As I waited for the bus today (for example) and it didn't appear for 15 minutes, I decided that this waiting was teaching me patience. When the bus stopped, and the lady in the wheelchair showed up from nowhere and held us up another 7 minutes as she boarded, I knew that patience was joining hands with tolerance. Kum-by-yah.

When I hail a cab, I thought,I place myself alone in the universe, above and disconnected from humanity except for the driver. I'm a person with nothing on her mind but getting to the next place and nothing to do but think about getting there until she gets there, an exercise in abject narcissism. Taking buses and subways is like playing bumper cars with humanity; wherever you turn, walk, run or sit, humanity cannot be avoided. At any moment you can be threatened, approached, asked to move, offered music (for a price). The process of getting someplace cannot be disconnected from the triumph of arrival. In fact, it makes getting there -- alive and in one piece - that much sweeter, and often punctuated with a triumphant sigh of relief. You have really achieved something.

I do not miss my taxis. Taxi TV was repetitive and dull and featured Regis Philbin; the credit card system never worked, or drivers lied about it not working in order to get cash. One in five taxi drivers has not bathed in recent memory and one in two insists on talking on his Bluetooth so you are five times more likely to get into an accident. I have been in at least one taxi accident per year since I've been in NYC. On one particularly hot summer day, a bike messenger, reacting to my driver cutting him off, actually ripped a window out of my side of the cab, leaving me covered with glass, and obliging me to wait for the cop who was invariably summoned. I have been hit on, yelled at, lectured and opined in cabs until I couldn' t hear myself think.

There is a delicious anonymity in taking public transport. The bodies are there, but no one really wants to talk. We're as random and singular as atoms in a laboratory, except we have a certain degree of choice. You can move away from the person who stinks (usually) and everyone is on his way somewhere other than where you are going, so they tend not to bug you. If they do bug you, cops get off and on the trains and buses with some regularity and they let everyone stare at their guns. And now I only have to count my quarters to make sure I have the right fare, rather than having to dig out a 20 dollar bill, which is what my bank machine gives me, to cover a 5 dollar ride And how often do the drivers have change? You know already.

So, onward and upward. I am now as familiar with the M11 and the M23 as I am with the floorboards in my hallway. I eagerly await the advent of the Second Avenue subway. More horizons to conquer!


Thursday, April 9, 2009


Let's talk about comparative shopping.

I am one of those baby boomer holdouts when it comes to canned food. I eat canned tuna, I eat canned salmon, I will even eat peas, stringbeans and asparagus from cans. Maybe not as nutritious as the real thing straight from the ground, but certainly better than popcorn for dinner and you don't have to wash it.

My monetary situation is now so grave it is hard to look at 2.09 for certain canned foods packed by Green Giant or Del Monte, so I have taken to searching the store for alternatives. Enter: Goya Foods! My friends and I always avoided the Spanish food sections of the supermarket, racist prigs that we were (and I emphasize "were"). There was always some unconscious view that those foods were for the people in the "projects" on either side of our fancy shmancy red brick neighborhood, or for the few Domina-Ricans who still managed an apartment in Manhattan. We'd turn our noses up for the opportunity to pay MORE.

Well, GUESS WHAT -- Goya sells fabulous cut beets in a can for 1.19. ONE DOLLAR AND 19 CENTS as opposed to spending almost a dollar more for Del Monte's fancier can (is it really fancier? maybe I am just reacting to the familiar logo). And they have an enormous variety of canned beans, from butter beans to pintos, limas to garbanzos, all at around 1.19 or so per can. Hey, Progresso: you aren't even that cheap ON SALE! They also sell boxes full of cookable rice and beans (the perfect protein, so they say) in many variations. I am getting addicted to the random bowl of red beans and rice - and a box is good for several meals at a mere 2.39. I don't even think Hamburger Helper is that cheap.

So let's think of this recession as a time when we are called upon to broaden our horizons. I now walk to work one way in order to burn off the extra rice - and it's working. Do not worry about Goya -- seems my nephew went to boarding school in New Jersey with the heir to the fortune, so the company certainly doesn't need us as much as we need them right now.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Hi all. I am from a wealthy background and this recession marks the first time in my life that I am suffering with (or should I say without) money. In fact, I have lived in my historic apartment building, London Terrace, for almost 20 years in one of the last rent stablized units in NYC and am now in danger of losing my apartment because I am (also for the first time) 3 months behind on my rent. Now let me clarify one thing: this recession caught me by surprise and I loaned some money when I should not have. That is all I have to say, which is not much, in my own defense.

Let me point out that I sell New York City real estate, which will probably make you have even less sympathy for me. We all know what has happened here. Fear rules the streets. Anxiety runs up and down the elevators of residential buildings. Indecision clings to the crenolated stone of the most venerable co-op facades. In other words: people are too damn scared to buy real estate at a time when the bargains are so good they will kick themselves for not having taken action two years down the road. My 60 hour weeks without a sale are proof enough that things are a bit out of kilter. I, however, remain hopeful that the human spirit of consumption will triumph and the general public will get generally bored with sitting on the sidelines. Go, America!

And this, I believe, is how it may play out. Although my debt is probably overall less than most peoples' (around 30-35,000 including the rent I owe), I now have 13 million dollars worth of real estate for sale. The industry commission in New York City is 6%. That can vary to 5% or 4% depending on how the market is or how many deals a seller does with a broker. Usually we get 2 1/2 to 3 % because 90% of all deals in NYC are co-broked. That means one broker has the property and another has the buyer. So let's say, at the very bottom, I sell my 13 million. In fact, let's say I sell half of it - and call it 6 million. Let's say I get the bottom percentage, which is 2 1/2%. 6,000,000 multiplied by 2 1/2 percent comes to $150,000. Let's say I have the lowest split with my company, which is 50% -- that means I stand to bring in at least $75,000 which not only pays my rent but allows me a good bit of wiggle room for paying off everything else and keep going.

And these people want to kick me out. What would you do if you were them? Answer honestly - I can take it.