New York Women: Self-Vetting, My Aunt Estelle, and Haikus for Sale
Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 26, 2008
Yesterday I had lunch with Diane Villani. Diane and I have been friends for 35 years. Over the last three decades, Diane married and built a solid reputation as an art dealer and raised a magnificent daughter. Diane and I both grew up in lower Manhattan, she on the West Side and I on the East. Despite our disparate ethnic and religious backgrounds and other subtle differences that once distinguished West-Siders and East-Siders, Diane and I have in common our distinctly New York senses of humor and our mutual stubbornly-held convictions that work involves heavy-lifting and adding of value rather than flim-flam, image building, and manipulation. Indeed, Diane’s father was a railroad worker and the on-and-off father-figure in my own life, my maternal grandfather, was a mallet-swinging, metal-die-wielding leather cutter. (Diane’s brother, by the way, is a deep sea fisherman and for the last 25 years a well-known retailer at New York City’s green markets.)
Yesterday, Diane was upset and angry about John McCain’s current attempts to duck the first round of presidential debates. And, like many other New York women (and men), she was equally vocal about Sarah Palin. “People talk about McCain not ‘vetting’ Palin,” said Diane, “what makes me furious is that Palin didn’t have the honesty or integrity or respect for others to ‘vet’ herself.” Palin’s nomination and sudden vaulting into popularity were, for Diane, just more of the flim-flam, hubris, and self-promotion that has passed for worth in an age when more than 20% of the US economy has consisted of a financial sector focused on creating and exploiting the illusion of value where little if no value exists.
After leaving Diane, I walked uptown through Soho and Greenwich Village. On my way, I thought of other New York women who I associate with the streets and buildings I passed. The loft buildings and former sweat-shops of lower Broadway reminded me of Lucy Romero, my grandmother’s neighbor, a seamstress who came to New York in the mass migration of Puerto Ricans into the city during the late-1940s, who raised two sons to be cops. and who watched over my grandmother as her poor eyesight turned to blindness. Near University Place, I thought of Ida, my grandfather’s Luckies-smoking, caustic-tongued bookkeeper, co-worker, and not-so-secret girlfriend of many decades, who graduated from City College in the early 1930s at a time when few women held degrees and there were even fewer work opportunities for those that did.
At Fourteenth Street, opposite Union Square, I passed the corner where, in the late 1950s, I’d sometimes run into my Aunt Estelle, the wife of Henry, one of my father’s cab-driver brothers. Estelle was a short, curvaceous woman with dyed-red hair and a non-stop Brooklyn patter, a working-class Slavo-Semitic Betty Boop of sorts. Estelle made her living on-and-off as a product “demonstrator” and street-side vendor of arcane kitchen appliances. Springtimes and autumns, Estelle would set up her table on Fourteenth Street to demonstrate and sell hand-powered, needlessly-complex contraptions for peeling and cutting vegetables “It slices, it dices,” Estelle would shout in a rhythmic vendor’s chant. Flirting, cajoling, joking, and cursing while cutting cucumbers and shaping radish rosettes, she would artfully attract passersby and quickly sell out her stock.
Yesterday, at almost the exact same spot where Aunt Estelle sold her Rube Goldberg-like kitchen tools a half-century before, I spotted a street vendor’s folding table. Behind it sat a clear-skinned, clear-eyed young woman with a fashionably cut but studiously tough-looking Mohawk hairdo. The sign on the table: “Poems for Sale”. The woman handed me a leaflet headed “The Short-Order Poet: High, Class Literature at Discount Prices.” Below, in fine print, was a menu ranging from “Starters” (“Haiku: 2 for $5”) to “Entrees” (“Poetic Letters:$5/paragraph”) and “Deserts” (“Love Poems: $25 BYOB, Bring Your Own Beloved”) and ending with a “Prix Fixe” menu (“Customized Novella: $1,000”).
The woman introduced herself as Tatyana Brown. I asked her where she had gotten the idea and the ability to be a street-side vendor of words written to order. She told me that some years before she had read a book, “Writing Down the Bones,” that had inspired her to write reflexively and from within, without hesitation or doubt. I wanted to ask Tatyana more, not least because the ability and courage to write — if not to act! — spontaneously and quickly is something I have aspired to my entire life.
Union Square has changed over the last decades. When Aunt Estelle was a vendor passersby were tired workers — Jews, Blacks, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Irish and Slavs — on their ways to work or home. Today Fourteenth Street is crowded with students from New York University and the New School shopping or on their ways out for the night, with foreign tourists, and with communications and internet types with offices in the neighborhood. Just as I was about to ask Tatyana how I could could make writing become a release rather than a time-consuming chore, a determined looking, conservatively dressed young woman cut in front of me. “Its been a rough day,” she said to Tatyana, “I need a poem.” I left Tatyana to her work.