Too little time is given to reminiscences
The coming of a New Year is time to take stock, remember, and be grateful for what has passed and what might come in the year ahead. Each of us has our own story, special moments, people, and places that have warmed the heart.
Scrapbooks, although illuminating, cannot capture the smell of a crisp fall day, the wonder of waking up in a strange exotic city, or the smile on the face of a child. These moments are not chronological, but rather a rich tapestry of memory.
As we welcome a new year in troubled and difficult times, I take the liberty of sharing some of my memories, offering them to enjoy from one person’s journey to another, and in the hope that they trigger some of yours.
In the long distant past, in the heart of Manhattan, before the rich and famous moved into gated and guarded communities, Greenwich Village was once a Bohemian enclave. This was a time when the poet e.e. cummings could be seen walking the narrow streets to his home at 4 Patchin Place. This was a time when one might meander along Bank Street and stop at the home of Ronnie Gilbert, who along with Pete Seeger was a member of the folk group The Weavers. Further down that same Bank Street, young actors found a sanctuary of learning in the place where Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof established the HB studio in 1945. Classes cost $7, the atmosphere was friendly, warm, and cozy, and Uta, one of the greatest actresses of the 20th century, was known to wash the stairways wearing her mink coat.
This was at a time before national chain stores; when Manhattan rents had not yet skyrocketed, where little shopkeepers could still make a living, and local residents could still find a locksmith, paint store, dry cleaners, and small family owned grocery stores. The streets were abuzz with life, and young people might rent an apartment with friends for less than $100 a month. I was a sometimes-waitress, sales person, and acting student. My most full-time position was at Piñata Party, a Peruvian import shop on MacDougal Street. It was a lively place, and one of the first import stores in the city. One of our frequent customers was photographer Melvin Sokolsky’s assistant, the young, smart, and very beautiful Ali McGraw. She would come into the shop to purchase props for photography shoots and was always as nice as could be.
While many more memories remain in this scrapbook of time, with a more critical eye, I recall how difficult it was to live on $43 a week. Coupled with limited prospects, I realized that becoming an actress might require familial support, of which I had none. But the glory of memory is that it is selective and, without being a Pollyanna or a Pessimist, the mind can choose to see what remains vivid in a time and place.
In those long ago Greenwich Village Days, I visited a friend living in a rooming house on West 12th St. His place was magical. He was a collage artist, and in the small space decorated with feathers, apothecary jars filled with lemon soap, buttons and bows, one could barely move. On the wall was a large map of Paris marked by a circle around the Rue de Rivoli. Accordingly, my friend’s name was Mario Rivoli, with whom I sold paper flowers at night in the local Village bars. The map fascinated me and I made a commitment to find a way to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
A girlfriend was a cohort in this adventure. Our goal was to waitress in the Catskill Mountains (then called the Jewish Alps), and we found work at the Concord Hotel. The place was massive — it had multiple dinning rooms, pools, and entertainment facilities. I remember ladies decked out in all kinds of finery, either playing shuffleboard or practicing the Cha-Cha-Cha. The guests lived in another world from the staff, who worked long hours under grueling conditions. During the six months that we worked there, my personal claim to fame was carrying 14 main dishes without having them all crash on the floor.
Another staff waiter was Bill Graham. Bill worked at the Concord for years, earning money to build his career, and later opening the famous concert halls of the 1960’s, the Fillmore East and West. After months of work, I saved the necessary $108 dollars to purchase a ticket on a freighter headed from Brooklyn to Casablanca. As the Café Figaro had located to Tangiers, this was a destination for the Beat Generation, and where the late great poet Ted Joans hearkened our coming. Our boat, the Yugolina, was a refurbished Victory boat that had sunk during the Second World War. I planned that once I got to Casa, I would hitchhike to my ultimate destination, Berlin, where one of my fellow HB acting students was there while her husband trained opera singers in eastern half of the divided city.
Outside of getting caught in the eye of a hurricane, the trip across the Atlantic proved to be lots of fun. The little boat rocked from side to side providing quite a scary ride, and many bouts of seasickness. One of the more intrepid travelers was a writer for an underground newspaper. Throwing him into the authenticity of the moment, he took his paper and pen outside where, notes drenched; he was constantly blown back inside.
Casablanca was spectacular. The city totally mesmerized me, as did subsequent visits to Marrakech where I saw albino camels from my hotel room, and traveled deep into the souks to be a guest at a beautiful Muslim wedding attended by many Jews before their forced Diaspora to Israel.
Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, we touched the European continent in Spain. Traveling up the Mediterranean coast was memorable, with clean beaches that were in the process of being tampered with by huge hotels and the onslaught of Northern European tourists running towards the sun. Barcelona was magical as bells rang in the evening. One of our fellow Yugolina passengers took my friend and me to a bullfight with the romantic figure of the day, El Cordobes, Manuel Benitez Perez, who had escaped life as a petty criminal for the ring.
Onward we hitchhiked through the beautiful French Rivera, crossing the border into Italy, going northward over the Alps, and finally, at last, reaching Germany. It was not particularly easy getting to Berlin, what was then a divided city. One needed to go through endless checkpoints and long bleak stretches of autobahn. At last our destination was reached, as with many a sojourn, it was anti-climatic reality, far away from the romance of the road.
The place where we were to stay did not materialize, as the friend who was to greet us had disappeared back to the United States. Exhausted, my traveling companion, soon followed. I eventually rented a room in my friend’s ex-husband’s apartment. He was kind enough to show me around. I found work as a hatcheck girl at the Old Eden Saloon where I stayed for quite some time. That is another story, albeit formative.
My six-year sojourn in Berlin was just in time for what would be defining moments of that decade. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and United States soldiers stationed in the sectioned-off city were marching down the Kurfurstendamn toward what later seemed like an endless war in Vietnam. The scrapbook of this experience fast-forwards to a high school reunion many years later. At that event, I met two who had served; one I had last seen in that long ago Berlin parade, once, a graduate of West Point, now worn, fatigued, and disillusioned; the other was vitriolic and made no sense. They were both so sad.
The daylight is beginning to break as I conclude these few pages in my album of memories of a time when things were less complicated, expensive, and dangerous. No more can the celebrated walk freely; no more are the Catskill mountain hotels thriving, but thinking back gives me pleasure, and I hope for you as well. I believe that in the hustle and bustle of our society, too little time is given for reflection and musing, sharing, and laughter at reminiscences. Perhaps this New Year you will find time to sit down with friends or acquaintances, share a beverage and a special story woven from your own.