On Ringing in the New Year With Your Grandmother: Time Traveling to Saint Mark’s Place

I’m not armless in this picture, my arms are behind me!


Suzanne, The Eve of New Years Eve, 2009:

On the coldest day of the season, P. and I took the Metro North to Grand Central to chase my dead grandmother.  P. looking very French in chapeau and me in mink hat.  Lauren met us at the train station with Fede, her Uruguayan lover, an architect from Montevideo with the longest lashes and an accent that makes you want to kill yourself so you can be reborn Spanish-speaking.  Lauren kept me off medication during Bennington with humor and steadfast loyalty. She’s the master of quick, poppy prose with a cutting edge that has massive depth, andshe’s got a husky voice, and a brilliant mind. Last February she will-nilly took a vacation to Uruguay with our poet friend, Chip Livingston (poetry book forthcoming: The Museum of False Starts, Gival Press) And there she fell madly in love with Fede after knowing him for mere days, came back to New York, broke her lease, packed her bags, told her family adios, and flew to Uruguay to spend her life with him.  It was vastly romantic especially since she doesn’t speak Spanish, and he doesn’t speak English.  So, that proves it, just like the Zen masters say: talk is completely extraneous.

At Grand Central: Lauren and Me (with mink hat)

We lickety split took a taxi to Saint Marks and ate at Yaffa, an underground cafe with faded leopard skin seats and Victorian statues looking longingly at you while you eat. We drank oodles of coffee and Fede took a thousand pictures and then P. and I ran around my grandmother’s Saint Mark’s neighborhood, trying to imagine what it looked like almost a century ago.  At the west end is Cooper Square, where on an above zero day, teenagers skateboard and smoke blunts. On the other end is Tompkins Square Park, where you used to find dirty needles and scary men who talked to themselves, but it’s now a popular greenspace in the center of Alphabet City, arguably New York’s trendiest neighborhood.

Designed residential, Saint Marks is lined with old brownstones where once W.H. Auden and Leon Trostky made their residences. In the 60’s, bikers mingled with barefoot flower children holding daisies in their mouths.  In the 70’s, it was the heart of New York’s punk rock scene. In the 80’s, the druggies moved in, and in the 90s, Sarah Jessica Parker, as Carrie, stepped into a comic shop and met a guy who still lived with his parents and smoked too much pot.


Today Saint Marks is packed with wig kiosks, tattoo artists, body piercers, falafel stands, purveyors of knock-off sunglasses and lots and lots of delicious sushi places (we’d highly recommend the prix fixe dinner at Sharaku).  Luckily, the ghosts of the past came out of the molding, showing us 1937.  It was quieter back then, the six-story brownstones with latticework fire escapes held new mothers and sleeping babies, the bricks and the flowery molding were brighter, the news sellers and shoerepair men chatted with one another along the treelined streets where went my grandmother, very pregnant, in her tailor-made dresses, planning trips to the Whitney and dreaming of my handsome grandfather, writing at the Herald Tribune office.


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That night we went to Cafe Mogador, a Moroccan restaurant on Saint Marks where I felt 19 again, living in Rabat and Marrakesh, learning Arabic, falling in love with snake charmers and getting my hands hennaed.  Clay Tagine bowls lined the walls and there was that requisite picture of their king.  Lauren, Fede, Lizzy, Nico, P. and I all squooshed around a teakwood table in the corner to drink wine and eat lamb. Lizzy was my other savior during the MFA, where we were marked up by Christine Schutt, Amy Hempel and Virgil Suarez and wrote frantic emails back and forth to Lauren and each other about thesis deadlines and the drugs we could take to calm our nerves before lectures.

Lizzy is from the Upper West Side, a real live gossip girl, who went to Nightingale-Bamford and then Columbia and now lives in Rome with Nico. They just this minute got married at Villa Aurelia, part of the American Academy in Rome.  Her novel about an American living in Rome Don’t Tell Them You’re American has just been picked up by a fabulous agent, who actually knows how to edit.  Nico is Italian, he works for RAI, the Italian BBC, and specializes in Afghanistan (we cross our hearts when we say this) and has to go over there sometimes for two months in a row while Lizzy sits in Rome biting her nails and writing novels.  It’s too bad she quit smoking.  He wins smashing awards for his work so of course he and P. talked all night about the war while Fede took pictures and kissed Lauren, and Lizzy and I planned a trip to the south of France for a writing retreat.

Saint Marks, outside and in…


At the Saint Marks Hotel P. and I fell into the ancient bed while the old steam radiator clanked mercilessly. In the dark, we whispered about the next day, getting last minute tickets to Rock the Ballet at the Joyce and gallery hopping in Chelsea, where I lived the first year I knew him, and then taking the train back home to celebrate New Years, at Natalie’s ,with our artists friends in Vermont, where a snowstorm was expected.

On the street below, the late night car horns blared and the drunks congregated before the storefront grates. As I fell asleep, I was back on 10th Street in 1937, where once my grandmother walked home from drinking champagne with the Joneses.  No doctor had yet discovered drinking during pregnancy is bad for us, nor did my grandmother know yet the nightmare that would happen in Hiroshima, she didn’t have any inkling that in the 1950s we’d pack women away in little boxes and feed them Valium by the bucketful, she’d not yet lost her innocence to the killing of Kennedy and King, Vietnam, she did not know, either, that one day she would birth a daughter, who would birth another daughter, me, who would time travel back to be with her on the coldest day of the season, cuddled up to her husband, on the second floor of an ancient hotel in the neighborhood where she started her marriage on the eve of the second decade in a new millennium.

And So Starts My Grandma’s Journal:


Maggie, New Years Eve, 1937.

Carroll called up, to say she and John are at The Brittany*.  M. home early so we wrapped a Christmas bottle of champagne in paper to take to them in their suite, which is reported to be $5 a night.  Carrol looking beautiful as usual in brown net evening dress with sweet gold mesh Juliet cap on lovely red hair.  John changed into evening clothes while we sipped scotch and soda. He has sold a skit to the Rudy Vallee Show** for use on their New Year’s eve show.  So they were going to get in a radio cab around 8 and cruise around listening to the Valle hour in order to hear it and then go see Wingless Victory by Maxwell Anderson.  They said they’d liked the country. Said they stalled off a vacuum cleaner demonstration by bragging they already had one with dog-washing attachment.

We left at quarter to seven and to Lump and Edith’s, who seemed a little on edge for some reason. Had roast beef for dinner and champagne, pumpkin pie and Grand Marnier, then to play most unpleasant session of bridge with Lump going to pieces and general atmosphere just being bad.  However had two more bottles of champagne till midnight, M. drinking Scotch by preference except for toasts, and at twelve hung out the window, watched light flash on top of Metropolitan tower and listened to whistles and horns and people yelling in the street below—yelled a little, too.  Home about one-thirty, walking through rainy streets, and M. annoyed because, though sober, champagne sips had given him hiccoughs. Rid of them by water and so to bed, finally, happy.

*During Maggie’s time The Brittany was a pretty hotel that hosted a speakeasy in the penthouse. It’s now part of NYU and purported haunted.

**Rudy Vallee, the Sinatra of the ’20s, began The Rudy Vallee Show on the radio in 1928, and it was a hit, well-received and influential. Once an unknown made their appearance on Vallee’s stage, they were destined to become a star.

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