Saturday, June 20, 2009

Daddy's Little Rich Girl Celebrates Father's Day

Today is Father's Day and I am thinking about my late father and his influence on my finances.

My dad was cute, tall, fun, generous and charming. My friends loved him; he was always the one who came up with dough when someone needed an operation, schoolbooks, or just asked. The truth is he was the pits with money. When he went into a hospice for his last cancer-ridden days, he had two dollars in his money clip and a lucky half dollar coin he always carried with him. For years my mother had asked him over and over if they were financially ready for their old age - to which he would respond, "stop asking me already - it's taken care of."

What had been taken care of was spending the millions he had made off and on dealing coins, gold and silver, and as a consultant to the SEC. supporting a consistently escalating gambling habit. He was known to have made 3 separate trips to New Jersey in a single day when the state lottery was highest to buy hundreds of tickets, disappear to Atlantic City for blackjack when my mom thought he was in Pittsburgh on business, bet on anything that came his way from sports to what my grades would be on my report card (yes, I found this out later). He was the first person to put a pair of dice, a pool cue and a deck of cards in my hand. He drove flashy cars like Cadillacs and Lincolns, much to my chagrin (he tried a Mercedes for a week; too small.) He hardly ever hugged me or my brother, but we got new toys, new cars, crisp hundred dollar bills shoved into our hands, huge Sunday breakfasts, trips around the world and world class educations.

He came by this grand passion naturally. His mother, a diminutive blue haired lady we were all scared of, had taught him poker at 3, pinochle at 4, blackjack and the rest before he hit grade school. At 92, she was still routinely skinning her lady friends at cards- mostly 5 card stud - in the synagogue social room. When she and dad were together, they spoke Yiddish, so I never quite understood what they were talking about, but there was something conspiratorial about their quiet, breathy conversations in a foreign language, something I could sense but not define.

My grandmother, who had divorced the grandfather I never knew in the 1930s, lived quite well at my aunt's giant main line home, without too many worries. But she could fly into a rage for no apparent reason, leaving us all cowering. Dad had been something of a piano prodigy early on, and I was told grandmother would rap his knuckles if he played a wrong note. Rather than making him afraid of taking risks, or of calculating their effect, this seemed to have spurred him on to higher and more dangerously risky ground, especially where his finances - and his gambling - were concerned. At one point, he was holding on to some gold that a friend who was divorcing asked him to hide. He used a bar or two to purchase some coins planning, he said, to replace the gold when he had turned a profit on his purchase, which was probably more like a gambling debt in Atlantic City. He lost the friend, obviously, but even more miraculously stayed out of jail. He repaid all, but at what cost no one will ever know. The money probably came from a craps table somewhere. My mother cried over the loss of the friendship. There were later rumors of Swiss and offshore bank accounts, but we never found any.

So here I am, and most of the money I am living on is not mine. When dad defaulted on a school loan he had promised to pay while I was living in Europe, I swore I would never be like him, not ever. I think of this as I count out quarters for the bus. Still, he was my father. I remember with more than a modicum of pain how depressed he looked when I'd visit and he had no money for me that day - I always said it didn't matter and it wasn't like I even needed it. We spent my parents' 50th wedding anniversary around his hospital bed, my father the glowing life of the party although he had already lost his powers of speech. And I would give a lot to be able to sneak out of the house with him one more time without my mother knowing, head straight to exit 26 on the Pennsylvania turnpike and into Jersey to buy handfuls of lottery tickets and conspire on ways to nail down that ever elusive pot of gold. I swear I can still see it shining out there, someplace past the fast food meccas and car dealerships, at the end of our very own rainbow.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

FREE-dom - the Rich Girl Discovers Free NYC Treasures

With little or no dough, you might think it's hard to have fun in New York City. While the lack of funds does put a damper on dinner at Gramercy Tavern or Cipriani, there are a million things to do that cost you no more than a subway ride or the time it takes to walk there. Now that my dog's healthy and the weather has improved, I like to be out as much as possible taking in this city to which I am addicted. As it turns out, your lifestyle barely has to change - you just have to dig a little deeper to find the things you like to do. Here is my personal favorites list.

The Chelsea Art Galleries. This week alone, Larry Gagosian has a show of the last decade of Picasso's work that you would rarely see together even in a museum. There are hundreds of art galleries from 17th to 29th Street between 9th and 11th Avenues, open 11-6 pm M-F during the summer. And you can buy a coke for a dollar from one of the hot dog vendors, or a glass of Prosecco at Tia Pol on Ninth if you want to splurge at 7 dollars.

For a couple of bucks, grab a hot dog and soda at the Papaya King on 6th Avenue and 8th St. or on 72nd Street on the Upper West Side and then head to either Washington Square Park or Central Park to people-watch while you have lunch. Write down what you see or conversations you overhear. Maybe, like me, you will utilize the notes later..

The city museums all have suggested donations, but you are allowed to go for free even if the guards give you dirty looks. The best is, of course, The Metropolitan, where an afternoon in the Temple of Dendur will ease the sorest soul. And then there is the Frick, where you can sit in the room I call the Roman Bath room surrounded by work by William Blake, Guido Reni and others, and bask in the endless quiet. Museum Mile takes up most of Upper Fifth -- check the city museum website for a full list of opportunities.

Places like Barnes and Noble and The Strand Bookstore have readings and author events all week long, featuring stars like David Sedaris or Susan Minot, and lessers about to break into the spotlight. See the websites or call the stores for information and get there early because they fill UP. You may not be able to go into B and N and drop that 300 bucks anymore, but you can enjoy some literary moments brought to you by real authors...And the Strand has a huge selection of dollar books in stalls outside the store, where you NEVER know what you'll find.

Your dog is the key to endless new adventures and friendships if you take him or her to the local dog run. There are great runs in Central Park and Washington Square Park, and on the Upper East Side by the river. There are also small runs up and down the new park that is almost complete along the Hudson from Tribeca to Chelsea. I like Washington Square because it has a run delegated to small dogs (mine is 7 pounds). Bring some neutral, preferably organic treats and share them with the group there (ask, of course, before you give a strange dog anything to eat). I have gotten real estate clients from the dog run, as we bonded over our surrogate children.

Walk where you have never gone before. If I hadn't gotten off the train at 137th and Lenox, I would never have found the small perfume store hiding two blocks away. Take a chance. Near the 59th Street bridge is one of the greatest light fixture places I've ever seen, and they're happy to show you their inventory. There is a wonderful salumeria where you can get handmade Italian cold cuts on Second Avenue around 30th Street in Murray Hill. You get the idea - now get OUT there and stop feeling sorry for yourself!

Here is a sampling of what's happening this week that won't cost you a nickel.

Monday, June 8. Pianist Todd Williams often plays with Woody Allen, but today he is doing Ragtime and Tin Pan Alley songs on the Upper Terrace of Bryant Park starting at Noon. Bring your lunch.

Wednesday, June 10. Free Drawing from Nature class. This takes place at Battery Plaza and the Hudson from 11:30-1:30. Call 212-267-8702 for more info.

Friday, June 12. If the idea of email still mystifies you, here is a free class to get you started. You will get a free email account, your own email address and learn how to send and receive email. It takes place at The George Bruce Library at 518 West 125th Street. Call 212-662-9729 to register.

Saturday, June 13. Kayaking on the Hudson - a free workshop. Here is your chance to get in the water - this workshop is a whole day, 10-5 pm. Wear t-shirts and shorts and do call 212-408-0219 for registration.

If you go your computer and type in "free events in NYC" you won't BELIEVE what comes up. Live dangerously - Have fun!