Beverly Hills Cop, Part 1

IMG_5072

When Jamie first began running the studio he lived at The Beverly Hilton. It was nice, clean, stylish, and an easy commute to Culver via Motor Avenue.

Because he chatted with me every morning as I drove to work, he was generally awake at four a.m. and continued his days on East Coast time. I did the same whenever I was there but it worked differently for me: He merely began work extra early but I was nearly arrested.

Every morning after Jamie left I rose and dressed in black yoga pants and a white t shirt. After breakfasting in the poolside restaurant I began a long, early-morning walk throughout the neighborhoods of Beverly Hills. Sometimes I watched the kids enter the schools. Sometimes I stared at the houses and tried to recall which Golden Age of Hollywood star had lived where. Sometimes I petted dogs held on leashes by housekeepers. Sometimes I just walked and thought or listened to music. Every once in a while when I grew tired I would plop on a curb (there are no bus stop benches to speak of in BH) until my heart rate had decreased enough for me to continue.  One morning after a late film premiere the night before, I set off rather lethargically for my post-dawn walk; soon l ran completely out of energy and I collapsed on the curb in front of 730 North Bedford Drive to catch my breath. The house was the one in which Lana Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, is said to have knifed gangster Johnny Stompanato in defense of her mother. Gazing absently at the house’s facade I daydreamed about 1940’s Los Angeles and wondered what that night had been like. I must have sat there for quite a while, staring at the house, lost in my own reverie, because I nearly had cardiac arrest when I felt a tap on my arm and heard a voice ask, “Can I help you, ma’am?”

After I returned to earth, I turned and saw two shiny, young, Beverly Hills police officers. “Can you help me? Only if you know how to give CPR! You scared me practically to death! And help me with what?”

“You have been sitting here for over twenty minutes, ma’am. Are you all right?”

I squinted in the morning light and shaded my eyes with my left hand as I gazed up at the officer. “Sure, I’m fine. I’m just thinking, sitting and thinking.” I considered for a moment. “How do you know I have been sitting here for over twenty minutes?”

The officer didn’t answer my question but continued asking his own. “Do you have business here, ma’am?”

“Business? Here on this curb?” I tried not to sound incredulous.

“At this house, ma’am.”

“That house?” I pointed toward the beautiful white colonial.

“Yes, ma’am.”

I shrugged. “No, not really. I was going for a walk and I had been walking rather quickly for about an hour and I was tired and wanted to rest. Finding myself in front of Lana Turner’s old house – it seemed as good a place to sit as any other – I just plonked down and started thinking about the murder there of Johnny Stompanato.” Tired of peering upward into the sun, I stood: At my sudden movement, his and his partner’s right hands both jumped to deliberately rest on their guns.

That scared me. When NYPD officers pulled their guns, they intended to shoot. “Officer, have I broken some law?” I was growing nervous and began to babble. ” I walk every morning. I need the exercise and I like to watch the world. I’m just . . . I’m just . . . walking.”

The young policeman stared at me for nearly a minute. “You’re not from around here, are you, ma’am?”

“No, I’m not. I’m from New York City. My husband recently took a job running a studio out here and I am visiting.” He continued to stare and never smiled. “I’m a writer. I’m a teacher. I’m walking just to see the sights, to absorb local color.”

“No one does that here, ma’am.”

Growing peeved, I wasn’t sure how to answer that.  “I have no malicious intent, Officer. I just like to walk.”

He pushed his hat back slightly and glanced over his left shoulder at his partner standing closer to the squad car.

“Do you have any identification on you, ma’am?”

My heart sank. Who carried i.d. to go for a walk in the safest suburb in America? I grimaced and shook my head.

“What studio does your husband run, ma’am? And what is his name?”

I told him.

“Where do you live, ma’am?”

“In New York?”

He raised one eyebrow. “No, ma’am, here.”

“Well, nowhere yet; he has only had the job for a month and we haven’t found a house or apartment. We are staying at The Beverly Hilton.”

“Let us drive you back there, ma’am.”

“I’m not sure I want to return to The Beverly Hilton in a squad car, Officer.”

“Well, ma’am, that may be true but it is also true that you cannot continue to sit and stare at this private home.”

I sighed. Even I know when I have lost. And this LA policeman didn’t seem to find me as appealing as the one in SoHo who had stopped traffic for me.  “Sure, drive me home. But could you please drop me on the Wilshire side? It will be really embarrassing if you hand me over to the doorman like an errant school girl.”

So that is how I was escorted back to the hotel by two of Beverly Hills’ finest. True to his word, they dropped me on the Wilshire side so no snooping doorman or nosy tourist could wonder what kind of criminal I was or, to use the British euphemism, with what enquiry I was assisting the police. As soon as the shotgun officer opened the back door I trotted, mortified, into the hotel without looking over my shoulder once.

I never learned whether they called the studio and asked for Jamie or checked my residency at the Hilton. Beginning the next morning, I walked on the treadmill in the hotel gym then lounged and read by the shimmering blue pool.  There was no point in pushing my luck. I cannot expect to charm police forever.

 

No Livestock Allowed or Nina Meets the Leader of the Free World

FullSizeRender

A few years ago Jamie and I attended a Democratic Party fundraising luncheon at the beautiful Casa del Mar Hotel on Ocean Way in Santa Monica.

While it is now completely refurbished to its original 1920’s Italian Renaissance Revival style, the grand old lady of the beachfront has had a difficult life. The building was constructed in 1926 to be the Club Casa del Mar, a private beach club; it became one of the most successful clubs in Southern California, popular with local socialites and the Hollywood crowd until 1941 when the Navy commandeered it for the duration of World War II.  Afterward she, like much of Santa Monica, fell on hard times: Her glory days appeared over.  By 1960, she was shuttered.  Then she had a few additional incarnations on her journey – as a drug rehab center and a nutrition and health facility.  Eventually property values began to rise and a developer saw the great bones under the tired mask and she was reenergized as a stunning European-style hotel, truly a jewel on Ocean Way, the location of many big ticket events.

The main draw of this gathering was that President Bill Clinton was the guest of honor so everyone would be really well-dressed. Considering we lived so near we probably could have walked along the Strand but we planned to drive as I was in no mood to dodge rollerblading tourists as I tottered my way along the ocean front in a peach and white houndstooth Chanel pencil skirt and jacket and my usual stilettos.

Now I love clothes and I like nothing better than getting dressed up, but, I had begun to notice that at the political and Hollywood events we attended, everyone looked pretty much alike. LA casual (female) consisted of the tightest, most expensive jeans Barneys carried worn with a white James Perse shirt, skyscraper heels in the contrasting color of your choice (I often chose scarlet or fuchsia) and a Birkin. LA daytime formal (female) was the tightest, most expensive pencil skirt Barneys carried, a contrasting jacket, skyscraper heels, and a Birkin.  Because of Jamie’s job, I dressed the same as all of the other women we knew but occasionally I felt the need to rebel, to display my essential New York contrariness, so I would ditch the Birkin for something funky, like an oversized pencil case from the Met or one of my mom’s lightship baskets. 

Today I pulled out a tiny child’s handbag I had bought in Germany crafted in the shape of a lamb.  While small it held my lipstick, cell phone, and license which I needed to show to the Secret Service to gain admission.  I dangled the lamb’s blue braided strap from my hand and stood in front of the full-length bathroom mirror.

“How do I look?” I asked Jamie as he tied his coral Hermes tie.

His eyes darted from the basin mirror where he had been watching himself craft the perfect Windsor.  “You’re carrying Nina?” he asked, gesturing toward the lamb. “Won’t Emmett be jealous?”

Emmett was a similar purse, only in the shape of a brown Dachshund that I had bought the same day.  “No, he has plans today so it’s Nina’s turn to go somewhere.”

“Well, you look fine to me.”

We held hands and squinted in the hazy sunshine as we strolled down the rise of the walkstreet to the garage. Since it was a Saturday traffic was the usual nightmare but it got worse the closer we got to the beach. Ocean Way was always crowded due to the number of hotels located there but with road blocks and three separate security car checks, it took nearly an hour to go two miles.

After parking, we followed the crowds to the first security checkpoint where we each provided our photo identification, were wanded, and passed along to the hospitality table where we received our seating assignment. The final checkpoint was a Secret Service one at which everyone was patted down and all shoes and bags were searched. 

When we finally inched to the front of the line, I slid off my beige and black spectators and plopped them alongside Nina on the table.

“Thank you,” said the first Secret Service agent absentmindedly as he pushed the shoes along.  Then he saw Nina and laughed.  “Is that yours?” he asked me.

“Yup.”

“Hey, Carl, look at this,” he called to another agent as he lifted Nina up into the air.

The second agent walked closer and took Nina.  He frowned at me. “Is this yours?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Sorry, lady, no livestock allowed. Isn’t that right, Terry?” he called to another agent.

Terry looked up, saw Nina, and grinned. “That’s right; no livestock in a nice hotel like this.” He turned to a woman agent. ” Shelley! Shelley!”  She pivoted. “Come look at this.” He pointed toward Nina.

Shelley walked over and took Nina from the first agent’s hands. “That is so cute!” she exclaimed. “Is it yours?” I nodded again.

“Well, since no livestock is allowed you may just have to leave that adorable thing with me!”

Somehow I hadn’t imagined that the Secret Service would find my purse this enchanting but they were being so nice about it, I decided to just roll with it. “I can’t,” I answered. “I promised Nina that she could meet the President.”

“Nina?  Is that her name? How funny.  Seriously that is the cutest bag. My daughter would love it. Where did you get it?”

“In a children’s clothing store in Germany,” I told her.

“Oh, too bad. I guess I had better let you go; the line is bottlenecking. But, hey, if Nina gets bored, you just bring her out here to sit with me.”

I laughed and we continued into the ballroom where the luncheon was being held.  We found our table companions and the whole “where did you get that purse?” began again with every new woman who sat at the table.

After the luncheon and the speeches, the wife of Jamie’s client  – huge donors and our hosts at the event – said to me, “Would you like to meet the President?”

I started. “Hell, yes!” I exclaimed.

We rose and Sylvia pushed her way through the throng. When Bill Clinton saw her he smiled broadly and waved her over. He greeted her enthusiastically then turned to me. Sylvia introduced us.  “Is that your handbag?” he asked pointing at Nina dangling from my shoulder.

So I met the leader of the free world and we chatted for a few minutes, mostly about where Nina was from because he knew Chelsea would just love one.

Years later, at Bob Rubin’s book launch at The Four Seasons in Manhattan, I met Mr. Clinton again.

After greeting me effusively at Bob’s introduction I said, “I have actually met you once before, Mr. President, at a luncheon in Santa Monica. Sylvia Steiner introduced us.”

He stared at me intently for about thirty seconds.  “Did you have a handbag shaped like a sheep?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I told Chelsea about that. One of my security agents just loved it, too.”

“Was it Shelley?” I asked. 

“Yes, I believe it was,” he answered then looked me up and down.  “You aren’t carrying it tonight,” he observed.

“No, sir, it’s past her bedtime.”

He laughed and as he turned to speak to Henry Kissinger, he winked at me. “Give my best to the sheep!”

I sighed. I could come or go but everyone remembered Nina.

Truth is a beautiful, terrible thing.

FullSizeRender

I had a weird experience the other day. A friend had been telling me about a painful and scandalous incident that happened in her small upstate town. A local man, the son of a well-respected family, had just returned to prison after a parole violation; he had been released after serving two-thirds of the sentence imposed for stalking and murdering a college girl who had rejected his amorous advances over twenty years ago.

This idea of parole got me thinking about Corey Arthur, a young man currently serving a twenty-five-year-to-life sentence in Stormville, New York for robbing and executing my graduate school friend, Jon Levin. As this May will mark the twenty-year anniversary of Jon’s death I wondered whether Corey remained incarcerated or had been paroled; I wondered whether he had even asked for parole and how he would fare in the world again if – when – it were granted. So I did what everyone does; I Googled his name, followed the links to a story, and what I saw stunned me – a photo of me standing with Jon and some classmates in front of the Junior Common Room at Trinity, Oxford. Big as life in Newsweek’s online edition, the photo accompanied an extremely long article and a thirty-minute video (also showing me and my dorm room at Oxford) oozing sympathy for the convicted killer and questioning everything I know to be true about Corey, Jon, and me.

Here is the truth that I know. Corey Arthur murdered Jon. He tortured him by cutting his throat repeatedly to encourage Jon to surrender his ATM code and after getting it and clearing the daily limit from the account, he placed a gun at the base of Jon’s skull and pulled the trigger. Then he walked away.

Unless Corey didn’t do it, a theory put forth by the young man himself for belief in and promulgation by the Newsweek reporter. And, of course, the author believes that Corey couldn’t have done it because he is “remarkably polite” to the reporter. When he telephones the reporter (as he does fairly often including during the delivery of the writer’s child) Corey “always” asks after the reporter’s wife “with an unhurried solicitude that makes the question more than perfunctory.” Whenever the writer visits him at Green Haven Correctional Facility, Corey “strides eagerly toward [him] as if [they] were old friends.” Evidently coldblooded killers are inconsiderate, unfriendly, and unconcerned about spousal wellbeing; ergo Corey cannot be a murderer.

Corey is not merely innocent but beatific in the face of miscarried justice; he is never “angry or given to self-pity” despite “maintain[ing] that he is not culpable of murder” insisting that “other men, whose names he will not tell . . . are the real killers.” Oh. Well, that explains it, then. The SODDI defense, as an ADA mocked it at trial. (It stands for “Some Other Dude Did It.”) Charles Manson used it. Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald did, too. Corey Arthur says that he didn’t do it and because the reporter thinks Corey isn’t “dumb enough to call up his favorite teacher, leave a message on his answering machine, go to his Upper West Side apartment . . . torture and kill Levin . . . and then simply go to ground . . . “ it must be true. The reporter, a Dartmouth graduate, considers himself an exemplary judge of people, a better judge than those jurors who, like me, sat in the steamy courtroom absorbing the miserable trial testimony for days on end.

Not only is Corey smart, he is also “ready to receive compassion without exploiting those who offer it.” Evidently that is because he “writes poetry” and draws “sinuous and lush, dreamy but precise” things that remind the reporter “of the great Mexican muralists.” The reporter is attempting to help Corey publish a graphic novel because “we both believe his life is rife with material for such an enterprise.”

Graphic is indeed the word. It doesn’t get much more graphic than what Corey did to Jon literally and to the rest of us figuratively.

After finishing reading, I played the video that sharpens and deviates slightly from the article’s innocence thesis. In the film, Corey never says that he didn’t kill Jon; rather, after extolling Jon as a “cool” teacher, he professes that he was torn apart emotionally by a glance at Carol, Jon’s mother, at the trial and he reads us the text of an unanswered letter of apology he sent to Jerry, Jon’s father. He is distraught that he has brought such calamity and loss upon them, an interesting perspective for someone who didn’t murder their son.

The interviews (of one of our classmates and one of our professors) are edited so sharply that they express the movie’s thesis – regardless of who actually slit Jon’s throat and blew away most of his skull, Jon brought it about himself by failing to respect professional boundaries by attempting to befriend Corey after he dropped out of school. Evidently, Corey is an expert at “receiv[ing] compassion” but I suspect that there was more “exploitation” than the author wishes to see.

I understand the concept of the freedom of the press. I understand that an author must gain the trust of his subject if he hopes to learn anything new.   I understand that a writer’s only responsibility is to tell the truth as he sees it. What I don’t understand is why an investigative journalist would investigate so narrowly that he sees nothing but a dark and slender tunnel, the only light provided by the flickering candle of manipulation held by the inconsistent man sitting behind the bars and aching to get out . . . unless, of course, the writer was searching not for the truth but for the confirmation of his own prejudices.

The photograph and video contain images of twenty-two other people besides Jon that the journalist chose not to interview. It cannot be that he couldn’t identify the rest because each of us autographed the border of the photo. It cannot be that he couldn’t find us because New York University’s Alumni Fund’s endowment requests reach all of us several times every year; most of us are on Facebook (thanks, Mark Zuckerberg!); the majority of us teach at public schools in the New York Metro area and our names appear on District websites; some of us are published writers and can be found by Googling as easily as I found the article about Corey. No, this reporter knew what he intended to say and he said it; he needed no dissenting opinions and therefore he sought none. He saw what he wanted to see, nothing more.

Nearly twenty years have passed. Gallons of ink have been spilled and hours of videotape processed and the song of tragedy continues, entrapping all of us in the echo of the events of May 30, 1997. I don’t think it will ever end.

No, Actually I Am Not Related to the Collyer Brothers.

FullSizeRender

Meyer lemon season has hit at Trader Joe’s so I have been making lemonade for weeks by squishing lemons on Great-Aunt Helen’s old Pyrex juicer and mixing the liquid with simple syrup and cold water in my grandmother’s ancient glass pitcher with the yellow roses painted on the side. While not an arduous process it does fill the better part of thirty minutes. Oh, I know the local grocery store is happy to sell me Paul Newman’s Virgin Lemonade located conveniently in the refrigerator case but I don’t want it – and not just because I have no idea what a virgin lemon is. (Aren’t all lemons ‘virgin’ until they have been squeezed?) I don’t want to buy it readymade because no matter how hellish my week has been, there is something calming and satisfying about the process of making lemonade.

It’s funny that I feel this way because everyone knows that I am no Julia Child acolyte. No one will ever see me standing in Barnes & Noble weighing the merits of Jacques Pepin and Alain Ducasse; I live on Cap’n Crunch when Jamie isn’t around to prepare dinner. Additionally, my utter lack of desire for a new, unbreakable, plastic pitcher or a shiny, zippy, electric juicer has nothing to do with either ease of meal prep or reluctance to bring new items into my home; anyone who has ever seen my Bergdorf bill could attest to that. (When Jamie and I bet who had more of the chosen favorite sartorial object – his ties or my shoes – I beat him by a furlong.)

No, it is something else entirely. When I consider it deeply, I realize that making lemonade isn’t important of itself: While I like lemonade, it is truly only the connections that I want; using my family’s belongings brings them to life again in my mind. Lemons remind me of the lemon meringue pies my grandmother used to make in the summer when we were upstate. The glass pitcher sparks an image of my mom brewing tea and pouring it into the pitcher once it had cooled. Anything of Aunt Helen’s brings a vision of her making pizzelle cookies to my mind and tears to my eyes.

No one will ever gift me one of those Japanese declutter books because it’s for damned sure that I would donate the book to the local library before I surrendered even one of my parents’ Shiny Brite ornaments. When I was an undergrad I had an Intro to Psych professor named Andrew Barkley who taught imprinting. He said that the age that your same sex parent was at your birth is the age at which you will see yourself exhibiting the character traits and behavioral habits of that person. Dr. Barkley was right. Although I am way older now than my mother was at my birth, I have noticed that I have become her. My mom treasures her roots more than anyone I have ever met and now I wear her pearl earrings nearly every day; I dab Penhaligon’s Lily-of-the-Valley scent on my wrists because my grandmother used to wear it; Jamie and I have hung his parents’ enormous Piranesi etchings on the walls of our library.

Apparently I am destined to enter my sundown years surrounded by the things that connect me to the world I came from. I am not overly concerned; it is comforting and there are surely worse ways to go. Besides, in my will I can always leave it all to my niece, Vikki.

I Doubt that Shakespeare Ate French Fry Sandwiches

banner-whitby-harbour-2

Everyone says that travel is broadening – and it is – but often the things that stick the longest are the littlest things experienced along the way. You can spend the afternoon wandering through the Tate Modern then scurry over for a browse through Camden Market but what you recall is the ice-cold “fresh from the oven” corner shop pizza. You can lounge for two weeks on the golden sands of the second largest island in the Mediterranean perfecting a tan but wonder why you never heard of Nutella before. And you can set off for an evening of Shakespeare Near the Sea and finish the evening eating a French fry sandwich.

When I was a student teacher in the north of England, one night a group of us drove to the outskirts of Whitby, an historic market town in North Yorkshire, to watch an outdoor production of The Tempest. The night was clear and balmy and the production was wonderful. After the play finished someone suggested we drive into town to walk on the seaside, admire the ruins of St. Hilda’s Abbey on the hill, and get some local fish and chips. We piled in the car.

After parking near the waterfront and wandering the hilly streets for a bit, we chose a small chippie. As fish and chips aren’t included in the menu of New York City street food, I allowed one of the local teachers to order for me. I received my portion of battered, deep-fried fish nestled with wide cut fries in greaseproof paper patterned in old-time newsprint. The girl behind the counter also directed me to take a plastic-wrapped roll from a basket. I did as I was told but wondered why.

After we had all been served and wandered outside to sit on a stone wall and eat, I opened my roll and noticed that it was buttered inside. Seeing my quizzical expression, Iris gestured toward my fish and chips packet, and said, “You put it in.”

I separated the roll halves and inserted the hefty chunk of cod. The bun was so small that the fish hung out all around. Shrugging, I nibbled part of the edge of the drooping fish. My action was greeted by shrieks of laughter.

I looked up. “What?” I asked innocently.

“What you doing?” demanded Iris with her mouth full and her eyes huge.

“Um, I’m making a fish sandwich, but the fish is too big,” I responded.

“Not like that, love!” exclaimed Terrianne.

“Oh.  Am I supposed to break the fish in half?” I asked. “It won’t fit in my mouth then.”

“No!” they both howled simultaneously at me, aghast. I stared back at them, baffled.

“It’s for the chips, love,” said Terrianne. “See?” I watched as she demonstrated what she had done with her portion; she opened the lid of the bun so I could see that the chips rested on the lower half. “You put the chips in, not the fish.”

“Wait, what?” I asked tentatively.

“Oi, it’s a chip butty,” answered Iris taking a large bite of hers.

“Then what do you do with the fish?”

They both stared at me as though I had lost my mind.

“Er, you just eat it,” offered Terrianne confusedly.

“I eat the fish from the wrapping but shove the chips into the buttered roll?”

They both nodded, their cheeks puffed out with their meal.

“I am making a French fry sandwich?” I asked.

They looked at each other. Terrianne swallowed. “I guess so if you want to look at it that way, but . . . it’s a chip butty.”

“It’s very good,” Iris assured me almost defensively.

‘When in Rome,’ I thought as I slid the fish slab back into the newsprint paper; gently I built a little pile of French fries in the vacancy and pushed down the lid of the bun. I took a bite. It was just as horrible and greasy as I had feared. But then I am sure that tourists to New York are appalled by the hot dogs sold by the corner food carts. (Truthfully, so am I; Jamie and I call them dirty water dogs and never go near them.)

We continued moseying along the pier eating our battered fish and chip butties. Afterward we drove back to Hartlepool.

It’s funny that all these years later I still remember the night I experienced the highest and lowest forms of British culture simultaneously, William Shakespeare and French fry sandwiches.

Some Day, Some Day

images

The Carnegie Deli is gone.

Jamie and I ate there all the time when we were first dating; we alternated going there with the Chinese place next door. It was quick, relatively cheap, and close to my apartment on West Fifty-eighth Street (my first apartment; the one with the nudist neighbors across the courtyard).

New York was different then. It didn’t seem to try as hard, or maybe its inhabitants didn’t feel the need to try as hard. It was the New York of the old Playboy Club where I met Rod Stewart by laughing at him posing in an electric blue satin suit before a tinted mirror, surveying his reflection critically, and fluffing his pineapple haircut to greater spiky heights.

It was the New York of Lamston’s and Strawberry and Woolworth and Chock Full o’ Nuts; no Starbucks or Baby Gaps sprouted on every corner. Mama Leone’s was the tourist dinnertime haunt because Guy Fieri was still learning how to bleach his hair in CA. Pickled egg Irish pubs like McSorley’s lined Ninth and Tenth Avenues since the Westies drank there and they sure weren’t wearing Hell’s Kitchen, NY t shirts; the tacky tourist shops that I passed walking home from my ballet class at Carnegie Hall wouldn’t have even sold such things then.

Hilly Kristal still owned CBGBOMFUG: It was dark inside and the floors were sticky with God alone knew what; nobody asked. NYU night classes at 15 West Fourth Street rarely ran past nine pm because the building’s walls reverberated with the music from The Bottom Line where everyone from Lou Reed to Eric Clapton to Hall and Oates played after signing albums at the newly-opened Tower Records.

Pre-Disney Times Square was still a peepshow play land of ramshackle buildings owned by some of New York’s wealthiest families. Getting felt up (now referred to as “sexual assault”) on the subway home from Macy’s after Thursday late-night shopping was so common that women barely mentioned it to one another.

I think I am becoming one of those cranky old ladies who cannot accept change.   It isn’t as though Needle Park on the Upper West Side was a destination, but it was there and real and part of life and you grew up knowing it, just as you knew that you took the bus to the floral district for Christmas and Easter plants and to the fabric district for buttons for the clothes your mom sewed for you and to the Garden for concerts. Things just were; they had always been and seemed as though they would remain to be.

While New York has always been a Mecca for wannabes from the Midwest and Long Island, it has also been home to generations of ordinary people like my family, not just the very rich and shiny and the extremely poor and disenfranchised who populate it now. Maybe I just miss being young and fearless and unencumbered by a career and a mortgage and a 401(k), but New York City isn’t mine anymore.

Jamie and I returned to the Carnegie Deli before it closed.   We ordered pastrami and corned beef and potato pancakes and extra rye bread; we had to order everything that we remembered because it was our last time there. Walking through the door to the street was painful, like saying goodbye to an old friend. The Chinese restaurant next door is long gone. Tourists still clog the streets but they carry shopping bags from Nike Town instead of Bonwit Teller and Forever 21 instead of Lerner Shops. The Westies are gone, dead or in prison or hidden in witness protection. The garment district is gone, too, packed up and shipped to China and Sri Lanka, its destruction commemorated by a giant needle and thread. The only constant is the streets remaining in a state of being dug up, with steel plates and steam pipes jutting out at odd angles.

My grandfather used to say that New York was a great city, one that would be greater if they ever finished building it. I kind of wish they would stop. I liked it the way it was.

I Think There is a Bench Warrant Open for Me in Massachusetts

0000-1657-122

A few summers ago my mother and I drove to Brimfield, Massachusetts for the antiques fair and on the way back to New York we left the highway for a mosey along Memory Lane, ending at Three Rivers Grammar School where I had been enrolled during the very brief time my dad’s job transferred us to New England. It was easy enough to find Three Rivers, but what we saw as we stopped at red lights depressed me; the entire town was shabby. Reaching the large, redbrick, Victorian structure where I had attended fourth grade drove a sharpened Eberhard Faber Blackwing through my heart. The school was surrounded by chain link fence with looping barbed wire curling through the top. To say that it had fallen into disrepair didn’t come close. The playground tarmac, formerly painted with hopscotch and foursquare diagrams, was cracked into chasms from weeds the size of small trees bursting through. Oddly shaped islands of grey asphalt were scattered about in the shade created by them. No paint remained on the wooden sashes and frames of the enormous windows. Pigeons and their remains covered the sagging roof.

I pulled close to a curb. “Aw, man,” I exclaimed. “That makes me sad.”

My mother nodded. “I figured that there would be a big, regional school now, but I am surprised that no one kept up this gorgeous old building.”

I pointed at the dirt-streaked, second-floor window. “That was Miss Kolbusz’s office” I reminded my mother. My fourth grade teacher was also the principal and every week in those pre-answering machine days a different student was chosen to trot into her office and answer the phone when it rang during the school day. We transferred calls or wrote messages for distribution at a later time. I was often chosen because I spoke loudly and clearly.

A lump swelled in my throat for my lost childhood and I opened the car door. “I want to look in there,” I called to my mom over my shoulder. “Wait here so you can bail me out of jail if the cops come.” I didn’t expect them to; despite forty years having passed, Three Rivers still appeared to be a one-sheriff town.

I ran across the street and was pushing myself through the narrow opening in the fence when I felt someone brush against me. Jumping, I realized that it was my mother. From the far side of the fence I faced her.

“What are you doing?” I exclaimed as I saw her begin to compress herself and wedge through after me.

She exhaled. “I am not going to let you go to jail alone,” she answered.

“Then who is going to call Daddy and Jamie?” I asked, only half kidding.

“We will each get one phone call,” she replied knowingly in the voice of one who had watched Hill Street Blues religiously.

We crossed the broken tarmac and climbed the cracked and chipped steps until we were even with the large window of the office I remembered so fondly. Even leaning over the rickety banister, I was too short to see in. Frustrated, I chewed on my left thumb nail until a plan formulated.

“I know,” I said. “I will balance on the banister and climb to the window ledge. I should be able to see in that way.”

My mother raised one eyebrow. “I don’t think that is a good idea,” she said.

“No, I will be okay. Here give me a boost and then hold my leg until I have my other leg on the ledge. It’s marble, see? It isn’t broken.”

“Laura, be careful,” my mother clutched my thighs. “I don’t think it’s sturdy enough. I don’t want you to end up in the hospital.

“No, Mom, I am fine.” And I was. This was back in the days of my attending aerobics and weight training classes three times per week and I boosted myself easily to the ledge.

“Laura, listen to your mother,” came a deep voice. Startled, I nearly fell off the ledge. Digging my nails into the rotting wood sills I snapped my head around like an owl. Yes, it was a police office. Actually, there were two, one standing about ten feet away, and one about ten feet beyond him; they were both watching quietly. Their shiny blue and white car with flashing red lights blocked the old schoolyard gate.

“What are you doing?” the closer one asked.

I sighed. “I went to fourth grade here then we moved away. I wanted to see what my old classroom looked like.”

“Didn’t you see the No Trespassing signs?”

I nodded.

“Could you read them?”

I frowned. “Well, sure. I just said I went to fourth grade here.”

He pursed his lips and pushed his hat back on his head. “Did you just think they don’t pertain to you?”

I said nothing for a minute. “Do you want the truth?” I asked sheepishly.

His eyes widened. “I’d love the truth,” he agreed glancing over his shoulder at his partner.

“I didn’t care. I loved my teacher. I loved this school. I loved answering the phone in that office. I miss it all. I felt horrible when I saw the shambles the building has become and I just wanted to remember my childhood.”

The older officer hadn’t said anything until this point, apparently content to allow his younger partner take the collar. Now he called, “You say you answered the phone in that office?”

I looked over the closer officer’s head toward the farther one and raised my voice slightly. “Yes, my teacher was also the principal so everyone in her class took turns answering the phone when it rang.”

“I know,” he agreed.   “’Three Rivers Grammar School. How may I help you?’”

I was startled; that was what we had been trained to say when we answered. “No, wait,” I recalled.   “You are supposed to say your name in between the school name and the how may I help you part.”

The older officer chucked. “You’re right. I forgot. What did you used to say?”

“I used to say ‘Laura speaking’.” I cocked my head. “What did you used to say?”

He grinned. “I used to say ‘Duane speaking.’”

“Duane Corbett?” I nearly fell off the ledge.

He started. “Yes. How did you know?”

“You were in my class. We were the last fourth grade before Miss Kolbusz retired. I had a crush on you. Actually you and Michael Smith.”

He stared. “Laura Basquette?”

I shook my head. “No! Laura Basquette had dark hair!”

He peered from under his visor. “I don’t remember you.”

“Yes, you do! I am the other Laura. We moved here from New York at the beginning of the school year? Remember Mr. Ricci the math teacher who used to point at the board with his really big nose? Remember we read Rudyard Kipling’s “I Keep Six Honest Serving Men”? Remember we had to memorize our multiplication tables? How could I know all this stuff if I hadn’t actually been here?” I tried one last memory jog. “I won the fourth grade spelling bee, for God’s sake! The word was tomato and some girl named Tammy spelled it with an e at the end!”

The officer stared at me for a long while. “I know who you are. You were only here for one year then you moved away.”

Finally! “Yup, that was me.”

“So where do you live now?”

“New Jersey. My husband and I bought an old farm house with the last couple of acres.”

“So what are you doing here?”

Well, for one thing I was getting ready to fall as my fingers grew stiff and sweaty in the hot July sun. “My mom and I went to Brimfield then drove here to see what’s changed.”

Duane grinned. “Not much, but we do have a new air-conditioned police station with new cells.”

I gasped. “You aren’t going to arrest me, are you?” I nearly tumbled from the ledge at that.

He cocked his head. “I haven’t decided yet but even if I were we’d have to get you down first.” He turned to his partner. “Come on, Randy. Help the lady down before she falls.”

When I was back on the tarmac and it was obvious that my old schoolmate did not intend to haul me off to the hoosegow, I asked, “Say, Duane, you don’t have the keys so we could see inside, do you?”

He shook his head. “No, the town doesn’t own the old girl, anymore. Someone just bought her to turn her into condos.”

I sighed. “Isn’t that always the way?”

Duane did have a key to the padlock, however; he and his partner hadn’t attempted to squeezle through the narrow opening. He ushered us out then closed the gates and snapped the lock shut and walked me to my car. His partner opened the passenger door for my mom. After I was seated behind the wheel with the key in the ignition, he leaned in and kissed me on my left cheek. “Goodbye, Other Laura,” he said. “In the future, after the Brimfield Fair, go to the County Historical Records Office if you want to see old buildings. I will have to arrest you if you become a repeat offender.”

And with that, he turned, walked to his car, and drove away.  I haven’t returned to Massachusetts since.  No point in pushing my luck.