When I walked into the building, I could have sworn they had been speaking English--but quickly switched to Italian. Three "women of an age" stood in what passed for the lobby of my new building, sizing me up. I passed them on my way upstairs and singsonged "Hello!" in passing, like I did every day. Silence. As soon as I reached the second landing they resumed their conversation.
I had been warned that it may be difficult to make friends in the building. I was young, pretty, not Italian, and most importantly, not married. I lived alone and had no friends in New York except Georgia, the busybody older actress who had helped me get the apartment.
Next day, when I came down the stairs en route to one of several survival jobs, the three women were standing in the same place. "Good morning!" No response. They watched me pass then dispersed, smirking.
The short one with the frizzy hair stayed behind. "'Ey!" she called after me. I turned around. Her friends were gone. "'Ey, listen to me. Listen. Watch your back. You know what I'm sayin'?"
I didn't. I'd honestly never heard the expression.
"Watch your back", she nodded. "You hear what I'm tellin' ya?"
"Yes. O.K. Thanks", I said. It seemed like the correct response. She nodded again and went upstairs.
On the first of every month, the tenants of all the buildings owned by the Stabile family brought their rent payments in person to the Banca Stabile on the corner of Grand and Mulberry. It had been a working bank, I guessed from the 1930's-era wooden teller windows and deco vault, but as a rental office used once a month, now gathered dust.
The Stabiles, my landlords, preferred rent be paid in cash. The few times I had shyly slipped a check through the mail slot, I was told my check had been lost and I should come in and pay in person. I knew that meant cash. I counted my bills and knocked on the window of Banca Stabile.
Mrs. Stabile sat in the back at a huge wooden desk, in the semi-dark. She was in her early eighties, small, and fierce. Paying my rent was, for me, scarier than a trip to the principal's office. "Siddown", she said. I did. "You like livin' in this neighborhood?"
"Sure", I lied. My mother had always told me that my open face would betray me.
"You like the building? You like your apartment? No complaints?"
I was paying $225 a month to live in Manhattan, and could barely afford it. I was completely on my own. I had to hang on to my apartment.
"Of course I do, Mrs. Stabile! I'm very grateful to --"
"I was just makin' sure. So. I want to read you something. An anonymous letter from your neighbors." She pulled a piece of lined paper from an envelope. The writing was in pencil. She put on her specs and read it aloud: I was a whore, I was a deadbeat, I was stuck up and dirty and drunk, and I was probably diseased from the countless men coming and going from my apartment all hours of the day and night.
Gobsmacked is the word. "Mrs. Stabile", I stammered, "I haven't even had a DATE in years!"
"I believe you, honey", she chuckled. "I just wanted you to know what they're saying about you behind your back."
My back? Watch my BACK! The bare lightbulb in my tenement kitchen lit right up.
Later, I asked Georgia the names of the three women in the lobby. "Anna, Carmela, and Angelina", she said. "Anna lives above you--don't mess with her, she's mean. Carmela is the short one. I like her, she's OK. And Angelina is the one with the eye makeup and the crazy red hair. She goes back to Sicily every year for three months, some people say to collect money from her bordellos. She's a madame. Businesswoman. Why?"
I didn't tell her why.
Thirty years later, I'm one of the "women of an age" in the building. No longer young, often unemployed, still single, I continue to relentlessly chirp "Good morning" to people on the stairs. Most are pretty, unmarried, non-Italian, young women. Most do not respond.
Carmela moved away, probably to Jersey. Anna still lives above me, and that's yet another story. Angelina, the businesswoman, got too old for the stairs and spent most of the rest of her life confined to her apartment. Mr. and Mrs. Stabile died and their grandchildren sold the buildings. The beautiful Banca Stabile is now "The Italian-American Museum", such as it is.
Not long ago, I was coming back home from an audition when I saw paramedics hauling a shrunken Angelina down the stairs. Her hair was white and her eyes unkohled. Nobody was with her--no friends or family, nobody. In all our years as neighbors we had never had a conversation. She seemed distressed, confused. "Angelina, what's wrong?" She grabbed my hand and held on. "I'm no good. I'm no feel good. They takin' me now, Bella. They takin' me." She kissed my hand again and again. "I love you, Bella. Ciao! Ciao, Bella. I love you. I love you."
I watched them put her in the ambulance, and waved goodbye.
Michael and I used to see them in our favorite late night supper place on Spring. They were young and talented and famous. They were lost in love. They were gorgeous, and so was their baby. Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt rendezvoused in the next booth, also young and famous and in love. An elderly couple sporting fanciful hairdos (we liked to call them the Jetsons) sat in boozy silence over their Manhattans and tofu. It was a romantic time for some, I guess, the late-eighties in NYC.
Michael and I were single. "They're all watching us", Michael would say. "They want to BE us." It was a running joke.
We were making $300 a week before taxes in a popular Off-Broadway play, auditioning and doing odd jobs by day to pay the rent on our Mulberry Street walkups.
We'd met when I auditioned to replace an actress in the company. Michael was already in the show, and the director happened to be a guy I'd gone to college with in the Midwest. Occasionally nepotism works in one's favor.
After I got the job we discovered we walked home from Macdougal Street in the same direction, stopping in at the only place along the route to be open late at night, Spring Street Natural, on the corner of Spring and Lafayette. It was a big but cozy hippie holdover, with wooden booths, organic food, and a mostly-neighborhood clientele. We became regulars, and fast friends.
Michael's building, unlike mine, had been refurbished, one of the first in Little Italy to take aim at the exploding Soho rental market. His apartment was thrillingly clean. The walls didn't crumble and the fixtures were brand new. Sure, it was a studio, and he shared it with a roommate, but he wasn't ashamed to have people over. He cooked like a normal person with ingredients from glamorous nearby Dean and Deluca, and exhibited his collection of vintage eye cups in a rotating glass case. He hosted haircutting parties and Easter dinners and sleepovers to watch "Peewee's Playhouse" on Saturday mornings. For the first time, living in my neighborhood didn't seem so shabby.
Turns out one of mafia don John Gotti's mistresses lived in Michael's building, too. Michael's phone was tapped and all the tenants were being watched by the Feds. But we didn't know that yet. I don't think we would've cared. It would've seemed par for the hood, as normal as the smell of mozzarella being smoked on a Monday.
Over a quarter of a century later, Michael divides his time between residences, and I'm still in the old neighborhood, watching it change. Spring Street Natural is no longer on Spring Street--they've moved to Kenmare and changed the name to "Spring". Just "Spring". I've been there twice since they moved. The food's not as good and the bar isn't as welcoming, now that the original owner, Robert the Buddhist, is gone. Could be my imagination. Could be .
Today my downstairs neighbor told me that Lenny Kravitz has bought the block up from my building and everything's being torn down and rebuilt so that other, younger, rich-and-or-famous people who'd rather die than be us can move right in.
I took a walk by to look at the block halfway between Michael's apartment and mine. Everything is gone. Even the public playground is being dug up and re-designed. (Does the city take into consideration it's the only place for local children to climb jungle gyms? Could they have waited till summer was over?) Anyway, all the construction signs say "Kravitz Design". Good for him. Better than another Trump Tower.
The condos will be lovely, I'm sure. The prices will be high, and the new tenants will complain about the noise and inconvenience of the Feast of San Gennaro and how hard it is to park, that the open fish markets smell worse in summertime, that Uber drivers don't want to get stuck on our crowded streets, that the patch of the Bowery nearest us isn't quite hip yet, that offkey marching bands playing corny Italian songs stop traffic on weekends, that our subway stations are the dirtiest in Manhattan, and that the old Asian ladies wave their canes at you if you walk these sidewalks looking down at your phone. In fact, they'll complain about all the remaining things that make this neighborhood my neighborhood.
They won't get it. I didn't get it either, in the old days, when everybody wanted to be us.
More specifically, I hate to READ blogs, unless I'm doing research or surfing and some oddball blogger has some crazy insight into an esoteric subject. So THIS oddball will blog when she has some insight into her current obsessions: Vic and Sade, the oldtime radio show; whatever new play or TV show or film I'm working on (next up, THE HUMANS, by Stephen Karam, at Pittsburgh Public Theatre, and currently on Starz Network, a show called POWER); certain fascinating character actors; random queries and speculations, particularly about culture and politics and social climate, and travel. And music. And the history of my neighborhood in New York. And Clara Bow. And food. And wine. And my lovely friends and family. And Mark Twain. And dreams. And kitties. Don't ever forget the kitties.