In March, 1991, I was training to be an SSI Claims Rep in Jamaica, Queens. It was a strange reverse commute. I would walk down to the subway at Lexington and 60th from Fifth and 63rd counting the empty Olde English bottles along the way.
A strange ritual I know, but while I had hung in grunge bars in the 1970’s, worked for a very snobby company that happened to have its headquarters in welfare hotel paradise in the early to mid 1980’s, I was comfortable in my faux Fifth Avenue life.
Few people could believe that I was going to spend my days interviewing poor people, let alone drug addicts, low rent putas and drug dealers. But many of my male friends had died from the then monster, AIDS, and I felt a deep need to do something worthy with my life.
New York had been in a bad recession since Black Monday, October 19, 1987, and too many people who lived or had lived in my building were unemployed. Don’t feel sorry for them, they all went on to have their own truly impressive Wikipedia entries.
The owners of my building couldn’t evict me as I was a rent stabilized tenant who had never once been late with my rent—not that they could have if I had been late. New York was great that way. I’m not advocating not paying rent but give people breathing room.
Especially when you evicted everyone you could—I was the only tenant left on the first floor. The apartment to the left of me had been filled with cheap whores; the one to the left with more upscale art dealers who were arrested for both art fraud and drug dealing.
The building let street people sleep in the lobby. I would be the first tenant to leave in the morning ,and would wake some up: “go back to sleep,”I would say as I left some food and soda for them. Months later I thought: “what have I been—crazy? They can be crack addicts and who knows….”
But that came after I had begun to be jaded by SSI.
That day I was meeting my father after work for dinner in Bloomingdales. I never met a person–male or female—who loved department store restaurants so much. Not the well known good ones like Fred’s in Barney’s or The Bird Cage in Lord & Taylors, but the coffee shop in Orbach’s where he was treated like a movie god, and 40 Carats in Bloomingdale’s that had great frozen yogurt and I think soup. He loved vegetarian soups.
When I got to the subway that night it wasn’t working. Though it’s a huge station people were on top of each other. Somehow I got to a phone. It would be seven or eight more years before I had my first cell. I knew a few people who had them. Saw them, especially on the Hampton Jitney, where men would call their wives to tell them to pick them up in ten minutes. Men paraded their cells on Main Street Beach in East Hampton on Sundays. I still don’t understand that.
I called my mother as my father’s office was closed. I knew he would call her. I didn’t call her “the operator” because she couldn’t work a phone, a family, a group of people. As long as I had assigned numbers on my phones, she was “0”, even after her death. Nobody else could fit that spot.
Two hours later the subway began working. I felt so guilty though really how could it be my fault? Everything was then. I took responsibility for World War Two though of course I hadn’t been alive.
There were so many trains all trying to get out of Jamaica. It took another hour and a half to get into the city.
40 Carats was on my favorite floor in Bloomingdales—linens, sheets and towels. I saw my very handsome father, drooping moustache, too long hair (I called him Einstein; he thought it a compliment) sitting on a bed made up with Ralph Lauren linens.
My father looked old. It was the first time I had ever thought that. He said he had only been planning to wait another ten minutes. I couldn’t believe he even said that. My father would walk through fire for me. When I went to Europe at 20, he told the local newspaper he was planning on getting the plane and parachuting halfway through the Atlantic. Though he was deathly scared of heights he meant it.
I didn’t know it was the last time I would see him conscious. Four days later, the morning after Kevin Costner won too many Academy Awards, he had a massive stroke. Kevin Costner was one of my father’s pet hates.
I didn’t know whether to blame Kevin Costner for making him scream at breakfast—though my father was a screamer; me, because he had waited so long or the universe. I finally decided on divvying the blame between the last two.
I have always been a bit glad the subway wasn’t working that night as I remember every detail of that night.
He remained in a coma for five days, and gallantly died before we had to make any decisions. The on duty nurse called our house and spoke to my sister. She said he looked so handsome, even in death.
My father loved my apartment and my block even more than I did. Much more at times. Yet when I left, for once in my life, I felt absolutely no guilt. I don’t think he would have wanted me to remain on a street where the Olde English bottles were winning the space war. And rats were coming from our fireplaces. And….